Around 7,000 people have been jailed in Germany after being caught without a ticket on a train, tram or bus and unable to pay the fine. Arne Semsrott has discovered a way to give them back their freedom and, at the same time, draw attention to a law that the activist considers unfair, the BBC reports.
One day at the end of 2021, Arne Semsrott set off for Plötzensee prison with 20,000 euros stuffed in his pockets. Part of the money was his, for the rest he borrowed from friends.
“I didn’t know if it was going to work,” said Semsrott, a 35-year-old German journalist and activist who planned to ransom as many prisoners as his pocket money would allow.
The person who is obliged to pay a fine does not necessarily have to be the person who pays it. By taking advantage of this loophole, Semsrott hoped he could draw attention to a glaring injustice: the law that allows judges to send people to jail for using public transportation without a ticket.
“We released 12 men from Plötzensee that day and 9 women from Lichtenberg prison the next day,” Semsrott said.
Since then, Semsrott and his organisation, the Freiheitsfonds (Freedom Fund), have helped 850 people regain their freedom for a total of over €800,000.
Semsrott believes that the law is unfair: “it discriminates especially against people who have no money, who have no home, who are already in crisis.” “We think this law needs to be changed because it’s not something you want in a democratic and just society,” Semsrott said.
Four months behind bars for riding the train without a ticket
Gisa März is one of the people who went straight to prison after she was caught twice traveling by train in Düsseldorf without a ticket. The 50-year-old woman had to spend four months in prison.
For four years, März sold magazines on the street in Düsseldorf to make a living. “I was on methadone, the drug they give you in recovery [de dependența] of heroin. And you have to go to the clinic every day.”
“I had no money. I was getting unemployment benefits, but it was the end of the month and I didn’t have any money left,” said März, who was initially sentenced to 6 months in prison suspended for three years. Ultimately, she failed to meet the conditions imposed by the court and was sent behind bars.
Most people who ride the bus without a ticket don’t end up in jail. They pay a fine of 60 euros and that’s the end of it.
Public transport companies, however, are not as lenient with those who are caught without a ticket more than once. In these cases, people risk going to jail even if they have paid the fine.
März was caught seven more times without a ticket between her conviction and when she went to prison. Semsrott was unable to help the woman as she was not sentenced to pay a fine, but believes that people in her situation should never be sent to prison.
Semsrott says prison directors agree with him. “Why? Because people who end up in prison have no business there. These are people with psychological problems, people who don’t have a home, who need help from social services. Prisons are not the right places for them.”
Semsrott estimates that by freeing the 850 people he has helped so far, the state has saved $12 million that it would have spent to keep them in prison.
Public transport companies in Germany do not want the law to change. The non-payment of tickets brought damages of 300 million euros per year to the industry.
The city council of Düsseldorf has ordered the local transport authority, Rheinbahn, not to initiate prosecution of those caught without a ticket.
Editor: Raul Nețoiu