Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Both the populations of juvenile delinquents and of former and current prisoners are continually marginalized in communities due to entrenched societal perceptions of these groups. Thus, there is a lack of structures that exist to support these groups, creating an unsupportive environment for offenders. There are no existing efforts or programs aimed at offense prevention and therefore it has become continually easier to enter into a cycle of crime.
Delinquents below 21 are responsible for about 27.5% of overall crimes in Germany every year and for 33% of all violence-based crimes, much higher than their share of the population. About 200,000 young people, aged 14-18, are suspected to commit an offense or crime every year. 30% of these young people are suspected twice, about 3.5% for 6-10 crimes and about 2% for 10-20 crimes. The last two groups make up a larger group called “intensive offenders:” youth with long criminal records at a young age. GHJ is mainly focused on reducing this core group.
Juvenile delinquents heading down a path towards a criminal career often lack realistic insights into where that path could lead. Many start with - and have been punished for - petty crimes (like theft), but they have not been confronted with the consequences for more serious crimes. Due to criminal role models, peer groups and TV series and movies, life in prison is often glorified among youth at risk. In addition, young people are not equipped with the skills allowing them to reflect and empathize with the perspective of their families and the victims.
Experts in the field propose that intensive offenders will not react to harder punishment but rather to better and extended prevention. Yet how to implement preventative programs remains a challenge, as existing programs for juvenile delinquents are paternalistic and lack a peer-to-peer approach. Participants do not feel understood or taken seriously. As a result, the programs remain ineffective and the delinquents ignore the warning signs. In addition, there are no federal best practice programs in Germany because justice is a state issue and each state is responsible for its own crime prevention and rehabilitation strategy and measures.
The situation of prisoners in Germany is not much better. Currently, in 186 prisons in Germany, 66,000 prisoners serve their sentences. A year of prison costs about 40,000 € per prisoner of state money. The average relapse rate for prisoners is 70% (among adult males, 50% among adult females), even though the mission of prisons is to enable prisoners to “lead a socially responsible life without criminal action” after their release. Most of them return to society with financial and emotional baggage: debt of 10,000 € (on average), a strong societal stigma and low chances of finding a job. Reintegration programs after release quickly lose effectiveness for their participants.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
With his organization “Gefangene helfen Jugendlichen” (GHJ, “Prisoners Help Youth”), Volkert Ruhe enables personal, peer dialogue between prisoners and endangered youth as a basis both for crime prevention and the prisoners’ own empowerment and reintegration into society.
The guiding principle of Volkert’s work is “double prevention and reintegration.” He uses the idea of building and exercising skills of empathy to combat the core issues behind offending and reoffending. Volkert opens the channels of communication in order that prisoners and ex-prisoners are able to share their stories with delinquent teenagers and young adults on the verge of a criminal career. Youth are encouraged to reflect on their actions and the correlated potential consequences, leading to fewer crimes overall. On the other hand, the prisoners are not only forced to deepen the reflection about their own biographies, they are empowered to be a valuable resource for teenagers and young adults. The exchange enables both groups of people to realize that they actually have something to give to society. In addition, the prisoners play a leading role in supporting, organizing and even replicating “Gefangene helfen Jugendlichen,” turning their engagement itself into a stepping stone for a successful return into society.
Integrated into a broad network of youth crime prevention work, Volkert Ruhe and his team provide a missing piece in the field with authentic, dialogue-based confrontation of the consequences of criminal action. However, Volkert also actively believes in shifting the way prisoners and ex-prisoners are viewed in society, and he works to reintegrate and reposition them as engaged, productive and valuable citizens.