Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Security Retention

Should "incurable" sex offenders and other "socially dangerous" individuals be held in prison after they have served out their full sentences? This is a truly difficult issue, which has come in for serious attention in recent days (see this Le Monde editorial, this comment and this other comment by Philippe Bilger, and the various contributions of Robert Badinter). The crux of the argument is this: despite rehabilitative therapy in prison, some offenders are deemed too dangerous to return to society at the conclusion of their sentences. Badinter implicitly concedes this point but argues that rehabilitation programs have never been adequately funded and that with sound rehabilitation there would be no "incurables." Bilger notes the very small number of prisoners who would be retained, infers that in most cases rehabilitation efforts are both sincere and successful, and contends that the belief that there are no incurables is purely ideological:

"Security retention will merely draw the consequences of an all too real humanity," he argues. To believe otherwise is utopian. Such a belief, while "generous, makes short shrift of all that daily pains those who hold a certain conception of the world, a pure and theoretical conception of the World."

What fails to emerge clearly from this skirmish, however, is the reason for the tenacity of belief on both sides. The conservative holds that the liberal is utopian if not naive for believing in a perfectible human race. The liberal holds that if the conservative's not implausible view of defective human nature is affirmed, it will be taken as warrant for unspeakable administrative abuse, and that the potential crimes that are likely to be committed with the blessing of the law are worse than those that might ensue by closing one's eyes to an unpleasant reality. Both sides can cite abundant empirical evidence in support of their claims.

The debate will of course be resolved by a decision of the man with the power, whose attitude toward "generosity" emerged clearly yesterday: "Between the hysterics of zero immigration and the poseurs of absolute generosity," he prefers the strong administrative measure of "strict quotas." Here, too, the conflict is real, and one must choose between flawed solutions. While it may be right to reject absolute generosity, it seems that relative generosity is often disposed of in the same gesture.

LATER: Elisabeth Guigou weighs in.


eric said...

is it not possible, in the French system, to make these decisions about duration of stay at the sentencing?

Can't you put egregious sex offenders in prison for life (or some very large number of years), in such a way that decisions about whether they are reformable may be made after a certain number of years?

there aren't analogous questions in the US, for instance, are there? what makes this an issue in france?

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Yes, there are analogous questions in the US and other countries. For instance, see:
Note the column on extended/enhanced sentences for repeat offenders.

Louis said...

Something very quickly:
Also in Le Monde, ever the annoying "journal de référence", this article raises I think a few interesting points:,1-0@2-3224,36-997342@51-996649,0.html

This contribution puts on the table two things of importance: 1. that there are already systems existing for that problem, and that using these systems would (maybe) be a better idea than creating new systems, 2. that there is a risk to see the use of such a law extended to other kinds of delinquents. Eventually, the "liberticide" potential of the law seems to me to outweight its benefits in solving a problem that is nonetheless real (Does that make me a rabid, naive, ideological leftist?).

Let's say like Pierre Lamothe that: "Cette mesure me semble une réponse inadaptée pour répondre à une préoccupation légitime, celle de la défense sociale." As a French would say, the danger is to throw the baby with the bath's water, as you, Arthur, underline : "While it may be right to reject absolute generosity, it seems that relative generosity is often disposed of in the same gesture."

Breathing new life into the systems already existing, and working on the faults of the French Justice and penitentiary system would, of course, be much more time-consuming and difficult than creating a new law.