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Austria case revives debate on Europe's short prison sentences

Thursday, May 1, 2008

VIENNA, Austria -- Police say Josef Fritzl left a lot of human wreckage in his wake: the daughter he imprisoned and raped for 24 years, the seven children he fathered with her and the wife whose life he shattered.

Yet for an atrocity that has stunned the world, he may wind up serving just 15 years in prison if charged, tried and convicted.

Practically speaking, that may translate into a life sentence for Fritzl, 73. But his case has revived a debate over Europe's lenient penal system -- and whether harsher, U.S.-style sentencing guidelines might help deter such heinous crimes.

"Fifteen years for destroying human lives is unacceptable," said Harald Vilimsky, a public safety policy official with Austria's conservative Freedom Party. "Any punishment that falls a single day short of a life sentence is a mockery of the victims."

Early release common

Many Europeans abhor the death penalty, and capital punishment is illegal across the 27-nation EU. But in many countries, even convicted murderers handed life sentences seldom serve more than 25 years.

Sweden has life imprisonment for murder, but the sentencing guidelines go as low as 10 years. That applies -- in theory at least -- even to serial killers.

In Germany, convicted rapists are punished with sentences of six months to five years. Serial cases, and those involving weapons or death threats, can fetch up to 10 years in prison -- but also as little as 12 months.

Poland's maximum for rape is 15 years, and that would apply even for sexual assaults repeatedly carried out over two dozen years as alleged in the Austrian case. The standard time served? Two to 12 years.

"It's rare that anyone serves the full sentence in Europe," said James Whitman, a professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale. "It's expected that people are let out early."

Harsher punishment in U.S.

In the U.S., by contrast, first-degree rape is punishable by up to life imprisonment, depending on the state.

Experts say Europe's shorter sentences -- and its reluctance to jail people for offenses considered minor, such as possessing small amounts of marijuana -- help explain why its prisons are far less crowded than U.S. lockups.

The U.S. has the most prisoners per capita in the world, with 751 for every 100,000 people, according to the London-based International Center for Prison Studies. Most European nations trail far behind: Britain's rate is 151 per 100,000, Austria's is 108 and Denmark's is 66.

Fritzl surely would face a tougher prison term anywhere in America, and in some states maybe even the death penalty, said Dan Richman, a law professor at Columbia University.

"I think it's fair to say that in any jurisdiction in the U.S. his maximum sentence would be much more severe," he said.

In Austria, prosecutors are still mulling how to charge Fritzl, who police say confessed to imprisoning his daughter Elisabeth -- now 42 -- beneath his home when she was 18 and raping her repeatedly.

The most likely charges he faces are rape, incest and false imprisonment. If convicted of all three, he would serve the sentences concurrently and the maximum would be 15 years for rape.


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