Can Christiane Taubira move France from repressive to restorative justice?

Christiane Taubira

Two women are making headlines in Europe and in France: Marine Le Pen and Christiane Taubira. Marine Le Pen leads the Nationalist party “Front National”(FN) that got 25% of the French votes, with a very low turnout, at the recent European Elections in France. Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, will introduce her reform of the penal system for debate at the parliament in June.

These two women have a dramatically different vision of society. Le Pen developed her message using leftist critiques of neoliberal policies and then proposing xenophobic and populist solutions that actually end up benefitting those who thrive on the policies. Her communication technique is based on political spectacle to discourage any kind of debate. Given the opportunity, she would send any opposition to jail. Marine Le Pen participates in the creation of a nationalist right that openly accuses migrants; the poor and any and all marginalized populations of being responsible for any capitalist crisis. Similarly, the Republican Party in the United States has absorbed the extreme tea party branch and normalized the same type of approach of political spectacle in the political debate.

In this context, the coming debate over the penal reform bill will stage a political spectacle with no intention to actually address the question of incarceration and justice. The right and extreme right have shown no inhibition in attacking Christiane Taubira on racist and disrespectful terms.

Meanwhile, Christiane Taubira and her collaborators have undertaken the difficult task of reinserting human values into a penal system that had evolved to serve neoliberal policies. The previous Sarkozy administration responded to calls for prison as the only solution. These policies were fueled with a rhetoric of fear and security, which produced a fertile terrain for the development of political parties such as the FN. Under the aegis of security, the goal was to normalize the punitive control of populations increasingly marginalized by the reduction of social protection and public services, and increasingly precarious working conditions.

Taubira’s ministry has worked on this project since the beginning of her appointment. Consultations were broad and produced a great number of recommendations, especially from the Conference of the Consensus. This multi layer review system brought comprehensive recommendations largely directed at lowering the rate of repeat offenders with more productive solutions for offenders, moving away from mandatory sentencing.

According to Christiane Taubira, the central aspect of the bill is to establish restorative justice. The bill would abolish minimum sentencing, deemed one of the worst legacies of the previous president. It promotes case-by-case individual sentencing. Victims would benefit from a more distributive and generous support system. The bill would reduce “dry release” from prison, which means release without supportive measures for reentry.

The key is the criminal coercion measure, which supplies the judge with an array of sentencing possibilities, including injunction to care. Prison would no longer be the only resource available. This measure was to be applied to all offences. Many voices opposed this measure including within the government, from Prime Minister Manuel Vals to Minister of Interior Bernard Cazeneuve and finally to President Hollande. The men of State united to demand that the criminal coercion measure be limited to offences shorter than five years. The problem is that the criminalization of drug use has lengthened sentences beyond five years. A parliamentary technicality allowed representatives to amend the text so that Taubira’s initial bill could be restored. After the council of ministers on Friday, the President made clear that he would not tolerate this part of the bill without a five-year ceiling.

For these three leading men from a Left government, what is the basis of their vision of criminal law? Is it that incarcerating bodies is the best means to render justice, or is it that the climate of intolerance and suspicion, brilliantly exploited by right and extreme right nationalist elites, has forced them to compromise?

Marine Le Pen and the right in general, have accused Christiane Taubira of defending migrants and delinquents. They made this myth the main argument of their campaign. There is nothing new here. Ronald Reagan used mythologies of the welfare queen to win election. This simplification of social debate to mythical images erases the complexities of the current political economy.

This is the climate that awaits Chritiane Taubira as she engages parliament in a debate about the role of incarceration in connection with the protections of civil society, which implies a reduction of inequalities. As labor and social laws are being compromised to serve a financial market that has no desire to protect society but rather seeks to fragment it in order to utilize it, Taubira begins a national debate on mass incarceration as a function of a political economy of growing inequality.

Hopefully, the President, who claimed to be a progressive change agent, will support his Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira in her attempt to transform the criminal justice system and abandon repressive justice in favor of restorative justice and a restoration of civil society protections. We’ll see.


(Photo Credit: Libération / Joël Saget /AFP)

Youth United: We have a solution – restorative justice


My name is Haydi Torres, and I am a member of Alexandria United Teens.  I am also a student at T.C. Williams High School in the International Academy. I am here today to lift up the voices of students who, every day, face the suspension problem in Alexandria schools.

Too many of my friends and classmates—and too many of our little brothers and sisters in middle and elementary school—are getting suspended. As students, we watch what happens when our friends and classmates get suspended, and we know it doesn’t work.

When students are suspended, we don’t get a chance to work on whatever it was that made us act out in the first place. And being sent home from school makes us feel like we don’t matter, that our school does not care about or believe in us.

For example, there was someone at my school who was suspended recently for getting in a fight with another student. Suspending the student for fighting did not solve anything. One student got to stay home, sleep, play video games, and get a vacation from school. The other student got more and more angry waiting for the first student to come back to school. Whatever the students were fighting about became an even bigger issue because they never talked about it. The school never actually made them deal with it.

Even though I’ve never been suspended, when things like this happen, I am affected too. It makes me feel like school is a place just interested in pushing us out when we make mistakes, instead of helping us to learn from them.

What makes the situation worse is that we know some students are suspended more than others. In 2010-11, the District shared data with us that showed that black students were 5 times more likely to receive a suspension than white students. Latino students were almost 3 times more likely to receive a suspension than white students. Suspensions, which we know don’t work, are especially used to punish students of color.  Students who look like me.

I am sad to know that this is happening in our schools. I know that teachers, our school leaders, and the city I love are also saddened by this.  I know we all believe we can and must all work together to fix it.

The good news is we already know that there is a better, proven way to handle student behavior than suspensions: restorative justice.

Restorative justice practices help teachers, students, and others talk about the root causes of conflicts, mistakes and bad behaviors. In the example of my classmates who got in a fight, a teacher or a counselor could have talked to each student separately. If they agreed, they could have then brought them together in a circle to talk about what caused the fight and how the fight affected each person.

It sounds so simple, but with the right training, we know it can reduce suspensions and improve school relationships.

My name is Glancy Rosales and I am a member of Alexandria United Teens.  I am also a student at T.C. Williams. As Haydi said, the bad news is that too many students are getting suspended. The good news is that we have a solution: restorative justice.

Today is not the first time students and community members have raised the issue of bringing restorative justice in our schools.  Since the fall of 2011, I have been part of a group of youth and community members that served as part of the “Student Empowerment Work Group. That group was part of the Student Achievement Advisory Committee. For many months, we attended meetings with the school district.

One of our key recommendations during that process was restorative justice.             In the end, after all that work, restorative justice disappeared from the Work Group’s final recommendations. Although we were frustrated by the way that the community was treated in this process, we think there is now a new chance to work together: the Alexandria City School Board, the school district, and the community.

Great things are possible when the community and the school system works together to make changes. We actually have a successful history of doing that with the district. For example, TWU worked with School Superintendent Dr. Sherman, the District, and our ally Advancement Project on the creation of the ICAP, the Individual Career and Academic Plan.

Getting restorative justice in our schools is another opportunity to work together.

Our ally Advancement Project is a national organization that supports community groups like TWU, the Tenants and Workers United. In Denver, Colorado, Advancement Project worked with Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community group, and their school district to implement restorative justice. Their work has created a great relationship between the community and the district, and has reduced suspensions.

We are proud of our city and our school and we hope we can be a part of that kind of process and success in Alexandria. So today, we have three requests for the Alexandria City School Board.

First, express your support for restorative justice in words and in actions. Many School Board members have listened carefully to the voices of the students and the community.  We are thankful for that. We would like to hear support from the whole board.

Second, make funding available to bring restorative justice into our schools. Recently, the district expressed interest in having a pilot at TC Williams High School. We support this proposal.

Third, Please make sure youth and community, the people who are most harmed by suspensions, are very involved in implementing restorative justice. We ask you to make sure we get to work with the District to implement restorative justice. As we know, school systems are strongest when we work in partnership and when the voices of youth and community are heard and respected.

(Haydi Torres and Glancy Rosales are high school students in the Alexandria City Public Schools. They are also members of Alexandria United Teens, a project of the Tenants and Workers United. They recently gave a version of the above as testimony to the Alexandria City School Board. Thanks to Haydi and Glancy, to the Alexandria United Teens, and to the Tenants and Workers United for this collaboration.)


(Photo Credit: The Connection / Vernon Miles)