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France: Major Reform of Penal Code

(Sept. 2, 2014) An important reform of the French Penal Code was signed into law on August 15, 2014. (Loi No. 2014-896 du 15 août 2014 relative à l’individualisation des peines et renforçant l’efficacité des sanctions pénales [Law No. 2014-896 of August 15, 2014, on the Individualization of Sentencing and Reinforcing the Efficacy of Penal Sanctions], LEGIFRANCE.)

This law has been controversial, and the Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement) opposition party challenged it before the Conseil constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) on the basis that parts of it were unconstitutionally vague and that it gave too much power to the juges d’application des peines (judges assigned to the application of sentences). However, the Conseil found that the reform was constitutionally valid. (Le Conseil constitutionnel valide la réforme pénale contestée par l’UMP [The Constitutional Council Validates the Penal Reform Contested by the UMP], LE MONDE (Aug. 7, 2014).)

The reform brings about several significant changes of French criminal law and criminal procedure, among which is the removal of minimum sentencing in favor of individualized sentencing. (Loi No. 2014-896, arts. 7-17.) Minimum sentencing was established under the current president’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2007 and 2011, and this new law essentially reverses those previous measures. (Ce que va changer la réforme pénale de Christiane Taubira [What Christiane Taubira’s Penal Reform Will Change], LE FIGARO (July 17, 2014).)

Another important change is the establishment of measures to ensure that inmates are successfully reintroduced to society after their release from prison. (Id.) This includes the possibility that a judge might require that the inmate submit to certain restrictions, obligations, and supervision for a certain time after he/she is released from prison. (Id.; Loi No. 2014-896, arts. 39-48.)

The new law also introduces the contrainte pénale (penal constraint), which is a type of probationary sentence meant to replace incarceration; the subject must abide by a certain number of restrictions and is under continuous supervision, but is not in prison. (Loi No. 2014-896, arts. 19-23.)

Furthermore, the reform allows courts to pronounce a sentence in a separate session from the one in which it decided on the defendant’s guilt. (Id. arts. 5-6.) This allows the court to examine the defendant’s personality and situation to determine what the most appropriate sentence would be.

Finally, the reform includes measures aimed at better protecting the rights of victims and creates the possibility of a sentence including reparations for the victim. (Id. arts. 18, 26, & 27.)