France's penal code for minors given its first major overhaul since 1945

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Newly reformed criminal justice laws regarding minors are to come into effect on Thursday. Among the changes to the laws, which date back to 1945, is an emphasis on education and a mechanism to reduce the time cases stay in the judicial system.

Although considered a victory by the justice minister, not everyone is convinced.

The plan to revamp the penal code concerning delinquent minors was put into place by former Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, who held the post from 2017 to 2020. It was followed through by her successor, Eric Dupond-Moretti, who described it as "revolutionary".

The code "reinforces the importance of education" and "is clear and efficient," Moretti said of the new law on Thursday.

The proposal for reform was voted by the parliament in February and came into effect on 30th of September.

A two-step legal process, reduced waiting times, a judicial education programme and the presumption of penal irresponsibility for children under the age of 13 are just a few of the measures which represent the end of an era, with laws not having been reviewed since 2nd of February 1945.

"It is a new era, where we change the way minors are dealt with, offering a fast and personalised response," the state vice attorney for the Côte d'Or region said at a press conference.

The objective of the reform is the "give these youth the chance to be something other than delinquents, it's designed to protect them and to protect society," said French justice minister Dupond-Moretti.

The reform involves having two hearings: one to decide on the level of responsibility of the minor involved.

This will happen between 10 days and three months after the complaint was filed. At this point, a decision may also be made regarding compensation for the victims involved.

The minor will then be 'put to the test' in an educational environment, to be evaluated over a period of time by a pedagogical team.

A second hearing will take place between six and nine months after the first in order to determine the level of punishment which will take into account whether the youth has made improvements in their behaviour.

However, only one hearing may be required in certain circumstances, if the actions are considered less serious, or if the youth has already been through the educative process.

Educational framework

One of the objectives of the reform is to shorten the lengthy waiting time for cases to be treated, which can be up to 18 months on average, which means around 45 percent of cases are heard after the minor turns 18.

Much of the emphasis of the reform lies in the educative measures which can be implemented at several levels and renewed over the course of five years until the youth turns 21.

The measures include reinsertion into school, providing compensation for the victim or carrying out community work, being assessed by medical professionals, or being placed in a children's home or host family.

The new text also provides stricter rules for holding young people in custody.

The number of minors detained before their case is heard has reached 80 percent of cases in recent years.

The law provides for detention to be used only for serious crimes, for repeat offenders, or when a one-off hearing has been planned.

Finally, the age for legal responsibility remains 18. However, a clause has been added for children under 13, who are not considered penally liable for their actions.

Bad timing

Several protest rallies were organised in front of court houses on Thursday, organised by a collective of unions representing youth legal protection workers, magistrates and lawyers.

One of the problems is with the timing of the of implementation, which has already been put off by the Covid pandemic.

Many larger courts in Paris, Bobigny, Lille, Lyon and Marseille are still struggling with a back log of cases.

"The justice system for children isn't functioning adequately today," Sophie Legrand, secretary for a union representing judges in Tours, said.

"It's been affected by two confinements, and with educational follow up appointments cancelled or sometimes only done over the phone. We have families who are suffering and we need to make up for this," she said.

Despite the recruitment of 72 judges, 100 legal clerks and educators, many in the justice system worry this will not be enough.

"The concern is that it will be so hard to meet this new timeline that we'll find ourselves managing robotically. We'll be obliged to hold more one-off hearings and spend less time personalising the process simply to gain time," Pascale Bruston, president of the Paris children's court told AFP.

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