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Reintegration after a custodial sentence: an overview of the past 10 years

According to article 131-1 of the French Criminal Code, natural persons who have committed a crime are liable to imprisonment or criminal detention for a period of between 15 years and life. However, according to article 130-1 of the Code, the sentence has a dual purpose: to punish the offender and to encourage his redemption, insertion or reintegration.

     The deprivation of liberty represents the punitive purpose of the punishment. More than just punishing the offender for the crime he committed, this measure is supposed to dissuade him or her from re-offending. The sentence also has a social purpose, which is to enable the individual to reintegrate into society. The concept of reintegration has passed through the ages. Indeed, Plato invoked, since Antiquity, this aspect of the punishment that became even more significant with in particular the influence of the Catholic Church, the humanist movement and the observation of the state of prisons. Therefore, it is interesting to look at the developments in the various criminal policies concerning reintegration over the last ten years.


French Prison Act 2009: the obligation to work

     Section 2 of the Act of 24 November 2009 imposes a work obligation on prisoners. Indeed, it is stated that "any convicted person is required to carry out at least one of the activities proposed by the head of the establishment and the director of the penitentiary integration and probation service, if the purpose of the activity is the reintegration of the person concerned".
However, this is rarely implemented due to prison overcrowding. As a result, prisoners are put on a waiting list before to access to an activity.

New prison real estate programme, May 2011: prison overcrowding

     Launched by the Minister of Justice Michel Mercier, this new real estate programme aimed to create additional prison places. The objective was to reach 70 000 places by 2018.
In July 2011, 64 584 people were in prison for 56 150 places. Eight years later, the increase in the criminal population and the lack of capacity for detention are still relevant. Indeed, according to statistics for July 2019, the operational capacity in prison, i.e. the number of places available, is 61 105. However, 71 710 people are incarcerated, which is almost 10 600 "too many" individuals.
Prison overcrowding, which mainly affects remand centres, leads to a deterioration in prison conditions and increases tensions between prisoners. For example, in 2016, the “Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de la liberté” (General Controller of Places of Deprivation of Liberty) considered that the living conditions of prisoners in Fresnes prison (in the southern suburbs of Paris), due to overcrowding and sanitation conditions, constituted inhuman or degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Court of Auditors’ report, July 2010: Work in prison

     This report, entitled "The public service in prison: preventing recidivism, managing lives of the prisoners", assesses the effectiveness of the various criminal policies put in place.

The section related to detention’s conditions points out the low number of working prisoners. Indeed, it is stated that "prison work and vocational training should be the cornerstones of the integration or social reintegration of prisoners". In 2008, only 31% of prisoners were in employment. Ten years later, it was 28%.


Report of the Senate on the implementation of the 2009 Prison Act, July 2012

     This report shows a disappointing implementation of the law of 24 November 2009. Indeed, it is stated that "the application of the prison law is not commensurate with the hope it raised".
According to this report, a lack of financial resources, particularly with regard to the development of sentence reductions, is at stake. Indeed, the Act of 27 March 2012 on the enforcement of sentences contradicted the guidelines of the Prison Act, in particular regarding the adjustment of short prison sentences.
In 2009, of all prisoners, 14.5% were granted a modified sentence. Ten years later, the rate was 22.5%. In 2018, 6% of prisoners were placed under electronic surveillance.

The number of probation and reintegration officers

     The Prison Integration and Probation Services (SPIP in French) are responsible for monitoring and following up on prisoners in order to prevent recidivism and promote reintegration. There were 3750 in 2009. However, in 2018, there are only 4000.

The Senate report asserted that the impact assessment carried out for the implementation of the 2009 Prison Act estimated that it was necessary to create 1,000 additional jobs for integration and probation officers. However, three years after the law came into force, less than a third of these positions was actually opened.

Faced with the constant increase in the number of prisoners, these officers are overloaded with work. Indeed, they have to deal with more than sixty prisoners at the same time, which makes individualized follow-up impossible and complicates reintegration.

Programming Act 2018-2022: construction of new prisons 

     The Justice Programming and Reform Act 2018-2022, enacted on 23 March 2019, provides for the creation of additional places in order to "guarantee the effectiveness of social reintegration of the custodial sentence (...)".
This raises the question of whether the construction of new prisons can really improve reintegration and prevent recidivism. For example, in France, 61% of prisoners sentenced to a fixed term of imprisonment have reoffended within five years. This figure is 23% for individuals who have been placed under electronic surveillance (figures from the Ministry of Justice).

According to Bruno Cotte, former President of the Criminal Division of the Court of Cassation, drafting texts that satisfy the rehabilitation requirement is one of the conditions for a return to freedom without risk or with the minimum risk of recidivism. Moreover, the Senate considers that the various legislative developments in criminal policy tend to enforce all imprisonment sentences, including the shortest ones, which may explain the standstill over the past ten years.


Oriane Boussard Grevsbo




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Traduction : Gaspard Grenier, Chloé Rousset.

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