Scandal in France! August 5th, at the beginning of the sacrosanct vacation month for the French, three “delinquents” who had not yet served their full sentences were released, due to lack of space in the overpopulated French prisons. The three men had been sentenced to 2 to 3 months in prison for light offenses. The decision to remit their time in prison was made by the public prosecutor department of Chartres/Dreux, in the western part of France.
Some politicians from the right decided to use this story to denounce the approach taken by the current Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira that departs from the previous government. Taubira wants to reform the system of sentencing, rather than keeping incarceration as the central remedy for all social problems.
Under Sarkozy, the State used the imagery of (in)security to call for tougher punishments on behalf of the victims. It developed a policy of prison expansion and the use of incarceration as incapacitation, along the lines of the United States penal system. Laws such as minimum mandatory sentences, until that time unknown in France, were proposed and passed, guaranteeing 4000 additional bodies every year on the assembly line to prison. These additional prisons ensured a smooth transfer of funds to private prison contractors, in particular Sodexo.
Christiane Taubira responded to her critics by denouncing the previous policies that created the current prison overcrowding crisis. But things got complicated when a letter by the current Minister of Interior Manuel Valls, who is in charge of police, to President Francois Hollande was leaked. In the letter expresses, Valls disagreed with his colleague Taubira, asserting that the individualization of sentence and the reduction of prison sentencing through alternative sentences should not be applicable for recidivists for whom he demanded tougher laws.
Manuel Valls voices a populist approach that tends to eliminate the individualization of sentencing, therefore edging closer to the American system of mass incarceration. Denis Salas, a law professor at the magistrate institute in France, argues for the importance of individualized procedure to avoid the mechanical effect of a law that prescribes incarceration as an unavoidable, or mandatory, sentence. He explains: “The shock of incarceration, detention on remand, then the first incarceration as most of the suicidal attempts occur in the first weeks of imprisonment have irreversible effects.” Moreover, many reports have concluded, including the recent report “Conférence de Consensus de prevention de la recidive” (consensus conference on the prevention of recurrent offenses), that prison does not help prevent the recurrence of offenses. The report was handed to the current Prime Minister last February and contained 12 recommendations for better penal public policies that all call for reestablishing human dignity, rather than tougher laws.
If the real goal is to break the cycle of repeating offense, one can only encourage Christiane Taubira to continue her work to sustain a society that sees prison as a last resort. A repressive police force and criminal justice system only serves the market economy, erasing the lives of individuals and collectivities as it strips bodies of very social existence. In this `debate’ between human dignity and mass incarceration, where exactly is the scandal?