France: Sarkozy plans the opening of an additional 30,000 prison places by 2017

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Changing tone towards the judiciary

On Tuesday 13 September 2011, French President Nicolas Sarkozy attended the opening of a new "closed educational centre for young delinquents" (centre éducatif fermé pour jeunes délinquants) in the city of Combs-la-Ville. He then visited a prison in the city of Réau. It is the first time such a visit had been made by a French President to a detention centre in 40 years.

The event appears to be a way for Sarkozy to reconcile with magistrates and the detention services, whom he had strongly criticised last February after the murder of Laetitia Parrais, an 18 year-old girl who was killed and then cut into pieces. The accused murderer already had 13 convictions and had been released after he served his last sentence in February 2010. The President considered it unacceptable that the legal system had allowed the release of this man, using this sordid event to support arguments for his campaign in favour of more stringent penal sanctions against delinquents and recidivism. This direct reproach to the judicial system was perceived as unfair by judges who, quite unusually, went on strike to denounce what was deemed as an unacceptable statement prompted by populist motives.

During his visit, the President expressed his "support, gratitude and appreciation for the courageous work" done by those who, a few months before, were still the target of his fierce criticism. He went on: "Our magistrates are doing a remarkable job in difficult conditions; their decisions have to be better implemented". He expressed similar support to reintegration and probation counsellors (conseillers d'insertion et de probation); this statement contrasted with the sacking of the head of this counsellors department following the death of L. Parrais earlier this year.

Larger detention capacity for a more diverse criminality

Sarkozy also announced his intention to see sentences applied more quickly. One flagship measure is the creation of 30,000 new prison places by 2017, thereby raising France's detention capacity to 80,000. 6,000 prison places have been created since 2007.

One of the objectives is to "diversify the facilities": recidivists should be separated from "first-time offenders". To this end, the President foresees the "rapid establishment of prisons for those condemned to short sentences and who do not represent any particular threat". The Justice Minister, Michel Mercier, plans to have these new detention centres "either built on military properties or located in premises which the Ministry of Defence does not use any more".

To prevent reoffending, Sarkozy has announced that three new detention centres will be used to evaluate detainees prior to and after sentencing so as to assess their level of dangerousness. 1,600 persons are expected to be "evaluated" each year.

Information-sharing is also on Sarkozy's agenda: "There should be a connection between the police's information gathering mechanism, and that of the gendarmerie, of the judiciary, of detention centres and of reintegration and probation centres".

"Strict discipline to cut off the cycle of delinquency"

Finally, regarding recidivism, Sarkozy considers that "under-aged delinquents from 2011 differ from those in 1945: they are younger and more violent when they commit a crime for the first time". To tackle this issue, the President announced the creation of 20 closed educational centres, in the same vein as those launched in 2002. The concept of youth violence has been challenged with the argument that, rather than behaviour, it is the understanding of crime which has changed. The economist Betrand Rothé recently made the point [1] that if current legal frameworks were applied to what was considered as petty crime some decades ago, unruly kids would have been sentenced to jail.

Sarkozy has also expressed his support for the legal proposal made by the MP Eric Ciotti: working rehabilitation programmes for young delinquents, supervised by the military. All these measures should be adopted by the end of the parliamentary term of office.
This article is based on an article published in French on the online version of Le Monde, Sarkozy veut 30 000 places de prison en plus d'ici 2017, by Franck Johannes and Arnaud Leparmentier.

[1] See Bertrand Rothé (2009) Lebrac, trois mois de prison, Seuil.

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