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Balancing punishment and rehabilitation

Education for juvenile offenders is considered more important than punishment by the Swiss authorities Keystone

Reports of a luxury reintegration programme for a violent young offender recently triggered a wave of public and political outrage in Switzerland. But such treatment, widely mocked as “coddle justice”, appears to benefit the individuals – and society.

What should one do with violent teenagers: punish them or rehabilitate them? A bit of both? In Switzerland, the official priority is to “protect and educate” young offenders (see info box).

“In the Swiss system, rehabilitation and reintegration are valued very highly,” Allan Guggenbühl, a psychologist and founder of the Institute for Conflict Management, told

“Compared with other countries such as the United States, the emphasis is more on how to reintegrate the juvenile,” he said, pointing out that in Switzerland the percentage of convicted youngsters who offend only once is “very high”.

“Some programmes involve regular anger management sessions. In others, the young offenders go out into the countryside, up mountains – they used to go abroad but they don’t do that anymore. Other programmes involve doing labour.”

While education is considered more important than punishment, Guggenbühl says hardly any young offenders follow an academic career because usually they have been low achievers at school. “The main goal is to get some kind of vocational training.”

Penalties for juvenile crime

The priority for young offenders is that they are protected and educated, so often they are not punished in the normal sense, but are made subject to educational measures.

Since January 1, 2011, criminal procedures for young people have been harmonised throughout Switzerland in the Juvenile Criminal Procedure Code.

The age of criminal responsibility is the age at which a person can be punished for an act that the law deems to be a criminal offence. Children under the age of ten cannot be held responsible for criminal acts. It is up to the parents of a child under the age of ten to decide whether and how to react to the child’s conduct. If necessary, the guardianship authority can order a child protection measure. Criminal responsibility begins in Switzerland at the age of ten.

The Juvenile Protection Act recognises two forms of sanction: protection measures and penalties.

Protection measures include supervision and personal care, out-patient treatment, placement with a family or in an educative or treatment facility.

Penalties include caution, personal work order (maximum duration generally ten days, but three months for 15- to 18-year-olds who have committed an offence), fine of up to CHF2,000 for 15- to 18-year-olds, custody order up to one year (for 15- to 18-year-olds), up to four years (for 16- to 18-year-olds who have committed a serious offence).  



Last year in Switzerland, 11,883 youngsters aged 10-18 were convicted of various offences, down from 14,464 in 2010. Of these, 80 per cent were male and 68 per cent were Swiss.

Rates of recidivism – defined by the Swiss Statistics Office as a conviction within three years of a previous conviction – have for years been around 35 per cent. In Britain, recidivism statistics for 2011/2012 show 73 per cent of young offenders reoffending within one year of leaving custody. 

So does the Swiss system work? “It does generally, because the percentage of juvenile delinquents who have to be imprisoned is lower than in Britain or the US. The number of offences is also down. So it does work for many young people,” according to Guggenbühl.

In canton Zurich, for example, the number of youth convictions dropped from 4,047 to 3,417 between 2009 and 2012.


However, this system is not without challenges – not least finding placements best-suited to individual offenders, a lack of cantonal coordination, scant regulation (most of the institutions are private) and high costs that are politically difficult to sell to a sceptical public.

“We always try to provide the best solution, but the institutions aren’t going to buy a product without seeing it, as it were,” said Beat Burkhardt, head of Basel juvenile court. “If we turn up with a young person who shows problematic behaviour and tell them everywhere he’s already been, many say no.”

For Christian Perler, head of Switzerland’s only unit of forensic youth psychiatry, founded in Basel in 2011, one of the hardest things is striking a balance between discipline and flexibility.

“Challenging the adult world and testing rules and boundaries is part of being young,” he told “We have to find this balance between having clear rules and tolerating the fact that the youngster has to test these rules to a certain degree.”


But the thing that generates the biggest headlines is the price tag. Carlos cost the taxpayer CHF29,200 ($31,500) a month, including CHF1,000 pocket money and daily Thai boxing lessons (see video).

This was interpreted by a lot of the public and many newspapers as basically being unfair and a sign that crime does, in fact, pay. The programme was stopped and Carlos was returned to prison.

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But even less extreme programmes aren’t cheap. Marcel Riesen, head of canton Zurich’s juvenile court, puts the average cost of one person in closed detention at CHF20,000 a month. A place at Perler’s unit in Basel, which provides intensive therapy for ten offenders, often those who are rejected by every other institution, costs CHF1,450 a day.

Guggenbühl admits that convincing taxpayers such programmes are worth it is “a bit of a problem”.

“The money spent on Carlos was outrageous. Absolutely exceptional,” he said. “I deal with a lot of programmes and they cost a lot, lot less. Also the majority of juvenile courts would never allow boxing lessons to be paid for – that’s absurd. I’ve had more than one young offender who wanted to pay for his own boxing lessons and [the authorities] didn’t allow that. So with Carlos something got completely out of hand.”

Nevertheless, Hansueli Gürber, head of the city of Zurich’s juvenile court, who after the Carlos case blew up reportedly received death threats and is currently off working reduced hours with heart problems, is convinced the programme for Carlos had been a success.

“We finally managed to get him to live for 24 months without offending – after five years during which he broke the law 34 times. This method would have worked,” he maintained. 


While Guggenbühl is critical of the sums in the Carlos case, he believes that in principle these programmes are a worthwhile short- and long-term investment.

“In the short term they save money because the offenders aren’t in prison. One day in prison costs an enormous amount of money. In California, they’re now realising that they can’t pay for all these young people they’ve incarcerated,” he said.

As for the long term, “what we have to prevent is that these young people end up socialised in criminal activities. You have to somehow get them on the right track, meaning they get a job, regular income and integration in a social environment”.

In practice, however, he admits extreme cases involving violent repeat offenders are a “tremendous challenge”.

“It’s an area where we’re all a bit lost for answers. I’d say that among ten juvenile delinquents there’s hope with nine of them. But with one – we just hope that he’s not a murderer,” he said.

“As long as someone hasn’t done anything very serious, you can’t imprison him just because you have the impression he’s a psychopath. That’s simply not possible in a democratic society.”

In 2012, a total of 635 youngsters were registered in the juvenile penal system, with 556 being treated in a private or state institution or educational establishment.

Fourteen were sent to prisons with special youth wings.

41 per cent of convictions resulted in “personal work orders” generally lasting ten days, 27 per cent in a reprimand and 22 per cent in a fine.

(Source: Federal Statistics Office)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR