France has a unique system of youth justice. Until the late 1600s, parents could have their children imprisoned without justification (Blatier 1999). For the next two hundred and fifty years, there was no concrete system of youth justice and no legislation to guide the handling of youth delinquents.

French juvenile justice started to take shape in 1945 with the passage of the Order of 2/2/1945. The Order established “educative options” as the preferred treatment for youth offenders and called for the use of imprisonment only when necessary. Educational measures stress instruction and treatment that is individualized to the needs of youths (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010).

The Order established the Juvenile Court and the position of juvenile judge to oversee youth placements. While the Order encouraged judges to order supervisory and educative sanctions for youths, it enabled the Court to confine juveniles in the event that their personality (based on degree of remorse) and the circumstances of their crime (extent of violence) justify such a placement (Blatier 1999).

Juvenile crime in France has increased over the last two decades. Statistics indicate that juvenile property crime and juvenile offenses against persons increased by 36 percent and 670 percent respectively between 1985 and 2007. Youth convictions increased each year from more than 29,000 in 2002 to nearly 54,000 in 2005 (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010).

As a result of the increase in youth crime, the political climate shifted from rehabilitation to incarceration and harsh sanctions for juvenile offenders. Juveniles age 16 to 18 who commit a repeat offense are now ineligible for sentence mitigation and can receive the same sentence as an adult who commits a similar offense. In early 2007, there were 746 juveniles in French prisons (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010).

The Order of 2/2/1945 gave Juvenile Courts two primary interventions for youth delinquents: custodial sentences and educational measures, which involve youth participation in academic or vocational activities. With the passage of the Law of 9/9/2002, the French government added an intermediary sanction between education measures and custodial sentences. Educational sanctions are available for youths age 10 to 18 and include reparation, participation in civic education, bans on associating with victims or accomplices, or bans on visiting the place of offense (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010). Judges can also order interventions such as supervision, remise (return to custody of parents), fines, community service, electronic monitoring, and suspended sentences.

The Law of 9/9/2002 calls for the construction of youth detention centres, which hold up to 60 juveniles ages 13 to 18. However, the Law reinforces the use of imprisonment as an exceptional measure to be utilized only when necessary (Wyvekens 2006). If a juvenile is not compliant with an educational sanction, the magistrate has the authority place him or her in secure custody.

French police are usually the first point of a youth’s contact with the legal system, but Juvenile Courts retain the authority to order custody. Police cannot hold a juvenile in custody without consent from the prosecutor’s office (Wyvekens 2006). German police also lack discretionary power to divert youths from the legal system. In England and Wales, police cautioning is a discretionary tactic that police use to divert youths.

Juvenile Courts can order custodial sentences but legislation puts limits on youth incarceration to ensure that custody is reserved for serious offenders who are not responsive to alternative orders. Judges can typically order custodial sentences only for juveniles over the age of 16. Juveniles age 13 to 16 cannot serve a custodial sentence unless the potential sentence is at least five years and they have served a previous educational measure, educational sanction, or custodial sentence. A recent law allows judges to incarcerate any juvenile without a criminal history who commits an offense punishable by seven or more years (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010).

Juvenile Courts use custodial sentences primarily for the highest risk offenders. Judges order custody for approximately 95 percent of youths convicted of a serious offense (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010). The duration of custody cannot be longer than half the length of sentence that an adult faces for committing the same crime (Wyvekens 2006). Juvenile Courts have reduced the average duration of custodial sentences to minimize youth custody. The average length of youth custody between 1988 and 1995 was 50 months. By 2005 the average length of custody was less than 40 months (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010).

Court ordered custodial sentences have fluctuated over the last two decades. From 1980 through the 1990s, the proportion of youth custodial sentences increased compared to all non-custodial sentences. Since 1998, the rate and the total number of custodial sentences declined. In 1998, Juvenile Court judges ordered 7,379 non-suspended imprisonment sentences (26 percent of all juvenile dispositions). In 2006, judges ordered 5,809 non-suspended imprisonment sentences (20 percent of all juvenile dispositions) (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010).

There are various residential youth facilities in France, some of which are more rehabilitative than others. Educational action centres and social children’s homes offer long-term placements, academic and vocational support, and help transitioning out of custody. Secure education centres and closed educational centres house juveniles serving suspended and conditional release sentences (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010). A problem with the latter placements is that such facilities are often distant and separate youths from their families.

A study analyzed judicial sentences in four Juvenile Courts and found that the Courts ordered custody in 16 percent of cases, observational methods and probation in 64 percent, compensation orders in nine percent, care placement in five percent, and return to family in five percent. Courts ordered custodial sentences for 55 percent of repeat offenders (Blatier 1999).

Despite the recent shift toward harsh punishment for juvenile offenders, the use of alternative sanctions increased 53 percent between 2000 and 2006. In 2006, Juvenile Courts used alternative sanctions in nearly 47 percent of prosecutable cases, and the total number of alternative sentence orders increased from 117 in 1980 to 3,275 in 2006 (Castaignede and Pignoux 2010).

France has a variety of prevention programs that seek to identify at-risk youth and address their criminogenic needs, but the French youth justice system does not use evidence-based programs nor do they have a system for evaluating the effectiveness of youth treatment programs (Wyvekens 2006). France recently adopted restorative measures to expand diversionary options. A program called school monitoring helps juvenile dropouts or those at risk for dropping out of school. The program requires them to participate in volunteer activities. The ideal goal is to encourage them to return to school. Nine years after the start of the program, 70 percent of participants returned to school (Wyvekens 2006).