After Convicted Rapist Rapes and Kills Again, Switzerland Rethinks Prison System

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Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

Women pay their respects at a memorial to killed Swiss sociotherapist Adeline Morel in Geneva, Sept. 16, 2013.

Adeline Morel, a 34-year-old Geneva sociotherapist who helped prisoners reintegrate into society, was, according to her friends and coworkers, a “kind, gentle, and deeply humane” person who loved her job.

That dedication to her work turned out to be fatal – on September 13, her body was found in the woods near Geneva, after she had accompanied convicted rapist Fabrice Anthamatten to a local horse-riding center as part of his therapy. He was serving the remainder of his 15-year sentence at the Paquerette, a social therapy center that is part of Geneva’s prison system, but focuses on helping reintegrate inmates into society.  On the way to the session, they stopped at a knife store because Anthamatten had received permission from prison officials to buy a special knife to clean out horses’ hooves — even though he was convicted of raping a woman at knifepoint in 1999.

What followed could have been a scene from a macabre movie: Anthamatten tied Morel to a tree and slashed her throat with the knife he had just purchased. He fled the scene in his victim’s car, but was found in Poland after a four-day international manhunt. Swiss authorities are now seeking his extradition, a process that could take several months.

The brutal slaying has sparked outrage in Switzerland and is fuelling questions about the country’s famously liberal incarceration policies.

Why, for example, was a dangerous convict allowed to go horseback riding? Why he was permitted to carry a knife, and why was he escorted by a female? “The naivete of the Swiss criminal justice system is incomprehensible and defies common sense,” says Philip Jaffe, an expert in legal psychology, based in Geneva. “To allow a recidivist rapist to enjoy any type of furlough is akin to encouraging him to act criminally once again.”

This leniency lies in the emphasis the Swiss penal system puts on rehabilitation and reintegration of convicts. According to the government guidelines, prison authorities should “integrate the outside world into institutional life by organizing sports contests between prisoners and other teams or by allowing prisoners to rehearse and perform plays together with professional actors.” In Anthamatten’s case, this therapy consisted of horseback riding sessions.

Because of this liberal approach, Switzerland sends fewer convicted criminals to prison than almost any other European country.

According to Swiss government figures and those of the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Statistics – the continent’s largest database on criminal justice – the Swiss incarceration rate is only 80 convicted offenders per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, the UK’s rate is 155, the Netherlands’ 100, France’s 96, Germany’s 90— and the U.S.’s 760. In total, only 11.5% of those convicted of crime in Switzerland are incarcerated; the others received suspended sentences or fines.

The common practice is not to incarcerate first time offenders, except in extremely serious crimes like murder. “In no European country are the odds so low of being sentenced to prison after a conviction for a violent crime like serious assault, robbery, rape, or child abuse,” says Martin Killias, professor of Criminology and Criminal Law at the University of Lausanne.

Like in most of Europe, the maximum sentence in Switzerland is life imprisonment; however, each such case comes under review after 15 years and, although no accurate statistics are available, legal psychologist Jaffe says that a considerable percentage – higher than in the U.S and the rest of Europe – are granted parole after this timeframe.

While a number of released prisoners go on to live productive lives, many ex-convicts commit new offenses. Swiss government statistics demonstrate that 63% of recidivists – those who commit a new crime within three years of a previous one — already had at least two prior convictions. Before killing Morel, Anthamatten was sentenced on previous rape charges in both France and Switzerland.

Another recent high-profile Swiss case that demonstrates the laxity of the Swiss approach is that of Claude Dubois, who strangled a 19-year-old woman in May, while serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping and murdering his former girlfriend. When he completed two-thirds of his sentence in 2012, he was eligible to apply to have the rest of his term commuted. He was allowed to finish his term at home, wearing an electronic surveillance bracelet. However, the bracelet only functions within a limited area, so Dubois was able to sneak out and commit the new crime.

“The Swiss justice system has not fully incorporated the notion that its first goal is to ensure the safety of its law abiding citizens,” legal psychologist Jaffe says. “It is still based on the idea that rehabilitation of convicted criminals is a central and noble objective, but this lack of prioritization creates the cracks through which the recent scandalous killings have occurred.”

Many legal experts, however, stand by the current system. André Kuhn, professor at the School of Criminal Justice in Lausanne, argues that centers like the Paquerette, where rapist Anthamatten received re-integration therapy, provide a gradual transition from a prison cell to freedom. “You can’t just open a cage and unleash a wild beast into the outside world without any preparation,” he said in a recent interview with the Swiss television TSR.

Still, Morel’s killing is fuelling a national debate over what measures should be taken to prevent future tragedies. Amid calls for stricter legislation and national registry for sex offenders, Geneva authorities have temporarily suspended day releases for their prisoners.  In the end, “there will be a push to legislate in favor of convicting more criminals to life imprisonment without parole of any kind,” psychologist Jaffe predicts.