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French law students and crime/les étudiants en droit et la délinquance



Over the last four years I have conducted an experiment with my second year law students pertaining to their opinion on punishment. I used the ICS former question about the 21 year old repeat offender who stole a TV. In year 3 and 4  I added questions pertaining to their rehabilitative feelings.

In the following pages I present the results of year 1, 2 and 3 (2011, 2012 and 2013)

Durant les quatre dernières années, j’ai mené une expérience avec mes étudiants en seconde année de droit et relatives à leur perception du traitement pénal de la délinquance. j’ai utilisé l’ancienne question des ICS portatn sur le jeune homme de 21 ayant ayant réalisé un cambrioalage pour la seconde fois.

Dans les pages qui suivent, je présente successivement  les résultats des quatre années (2010-2013)





A small poll with my Second year students
Are law students tough on crime ? 
(Law faculty, Reims, January 2010)


I had had the impression, over the years, that my students had become more cold blooded and tough on crime than they used to be.
French public opinion has always been more « soft ».
In the international crime survey they always range in the softest quarter (see Pat Mayhew and John Van Kesteren, ?Cross-national attitudes to punishment?, in M. Hough and Julian V. Roberts (ed.), Changing Attitudes to Punishment. Public Opinion, Crime and Justice, Willan Publishing, 2002, pp. 63-92).
So I thought it would be a good idea to test the question asked in that survey to my students, ie : a 21 year man is arrested for burglary. He has stolen a colour TV from that house he’s broken in. It turns out he’s already been arrested in the past for burglary. That’s all we know. People are asked what is the right sentence : prison (and in that case for how long), fine, suspended sentence, community work and ?other?.

I started with a small group of 5th year criminal law students (only ten of them), in January 2010. They study in Reims law faculty Master II « Droit du contentieux«. I was surprised to see that more than half of them were in favour of prison.
In the above quoted article we learn that only 12% of French people are in favour of prison for the 21 year old repeat burglar ; 69 in favour of community service ; 5% for a suspended sentence ; 8% for a fine ; 2% other sentences ; 4% do not know.
The sentences my students suggested ranged between 2 months and 5 months (versus 14 months with French people who wanted prison).

Yesterday a started a second semester class with 2nd year students – thus in an amphitheatre. I had to try with them BEFORE I taught them how useless prison actually is and before they had a better knowledge of what alternative sentences are m :my class is precisely about « Sentences law » (droit de la peine).

Here is the result of my little experiment
Note that I followed exactly the method used for the ICVS and reported with its results in Pat Mayhew and John van Kesteren?s article.
Under French law many other sentences may have qualified and probably attracted some votes (especially suspended sentence with supervision or community work combined with suspended sentence and supervision). But I was determined to compare the results for my students with the one in the above quoted article.

In favour of prison : 32 students
I was amazed at the length of the prison sentences they came up with 4 in favour of 5 years, 3 … 3 years, 3… 2 years, 7 one year, 1… 9 months, 1… 8 months, 2… 6 months…, 2…. 3 months…. , 5…. 2 months, 1…; 1 month)

In favour of a fine : 5 students
Two commented on its amount :
- Ten times the price of the television
- 3000 euros

In favour of a suspended sentence without supervision (in French : sursis simple) : 14 students

In favour of community work (in French : travail d’intérêt général) : 39 students

In favour of another sentence : 8 students
They were supposed to propose something specific there. Not all did. I had allowed them, deviating a little here from the ICVS, to come up with whatever they wanted.
So of course some came up with hilarious suggestions for anyone knowing a little about France, along with more serious ideas :
- listen to Didier Barbelivien or Francis Lalane for 48 hours
- watch the complete Pascal Sevran TV series
- no right to possess a television for life
- work for the victim for an amount corresponding to twice the price value of the colour tv
- 6 months in the military or other equivalent measure
- damages plus mandatory work training programme

I am a little relieved to see that so many students are in favour of sentences other than imprisonment (: 66 against ; 32 for). But I was equally amazed at the length of the prison sentences a few of them suggested.
As some specialists have noted, public opinion may be sometimes wrongly considered as tougher than it actually is because of a few elements being extremely tough on crime.
I must bear in mind that these students are only in their second year and only a few of them will eventually work as judges, in he police or probation services. Thus it would be interesting to systematically poll 5th year students, since they are the ones, in France, who try and pass the exams for these professions.
And lastly I shall renew the experiment after my classes (‘Sentences law’) are finished at the end of April, to see if whatever I taught them has had any influence on their opinion. That would address another subject which specialist of public opinion on crime study, ie whether public opinion on crime can be modified.



A small poll with my Second year students
Are law students tough on crime?

(Law faculty, Reims, June 2011)

I- Presentation

In the academic year 2010-2011, I conducted for the second time, a students’ poll. I polled my 2nd law students at the very beginning of the sentencing class (Droit de la peine). I used the same question as last year, i.e. the International Crime Survey story (see e.g. Pat Mayhew and John Van Kesteren, ‘Cross-national attitudes to punishment?’, in M. Hough and Julian V. Roberts (eds.), Changing Attitudes to Punishment. Public Opinion, Crime and Justice, Cullompton, Willan Publishing, 2002, pp. 63-92).

As a reminder, here is the question: a 21 year man is arrested for burglary. He has stolen a colour TV from that house he has broken in. It turns out he has already been arrested in the past for burglary. This is all we know. People are asked what would the right sentence be:
- prison ? in which case please say for how long;
- fine;
- suspended sentence;
- community work;
- other ? in which case, please specify.

This year, I obtained very different results from last year. Prima facie, this could be interpreted as meaning that my second law students were way more ‘tough on crime’ than last year’s students, who overall responded in a similar vein as adults polled in the ICS.
None of that in 2010-2011.

II- The results

Two general observations:
1) They seemed way more deterrence prone than the previous year ? and quite frighteningly so I might add;
2) They frequently chose other punishment and opted for much more complex combinations of sentences than they did last year.

Here are the results (68 students answered).

33 chose imprisonment. It included:
- 1 who chose life (seriously?!);
- 1 chose 15 years;
- 1 chose 12 years;
- 1 chose 5 years;
- 1 chose 4 years;
- 4 chose 3 years;
- 4 chose 2 years;
- 4 chose 1 years;
- 1 chose 7 months;
- 8 chose 6 months;
- 1 chose 5 months;
- 1 chose 2 months;
- 1 chose 1 months;
- 4 chose imprisonment without specifying the quantum.

Only 2 chose a suspended sentence
Only 8 chose community work
And 2, but this is more classic, chose a fine

Surprisingly (compare with last year) 23 chose ‘other sentence’ and specified as follows:

prison plus fine = 9 students
which included:
- 1 who chose 5 years plus a fine
- 1……………….4 years plus a fine
- 1……………….3 years plus a fine
- 5……………….1 year plus a fine

prison part suspended plus fine
1 student opted for 2 years, part suspended (without specifying), plus a fine

fully suspended sentence plus fine
3 students chose this option but did not specify the prison quantum

community work plus fine
1 student

community work plus prison
2 students chose this option, but did not specify the prison quantum

part suspended prison sentence
3 students:
- 1 opting for 6 months part suspended – unspecified;
- 1 opting for 1 year, 6 months being suspended;
- 1……………..3 months, 2 months being suspended;

fine + community work + suspended prison (unspecified)
2 students

death penalty (you read that one right!)
2 students

In other words 17 more students would want the young man who committed the burglary to do some time. In all that’s 50 students out of 66 who opt for prison.

III- Explanations?

Why such radically different results compared to last year?
I think that this may have been circumstantial and this for the following two reasons:

- Immediately prior to this poll, a high profile case was making the national headlines (and did so for weeks). This recently released inmate was supposed to be supervised in the community. But because his offence was not deemed serious enough (France still refuses to believe in actuarial assessment, so it ‘assesses’ offenders without any evidence-based tool; in this case, only on the grounds of the offence) his file was put on a pile of un-assigned files, as the probation service was so terribly overloaded (200 files per probation officer) that it had no choice but to do so. This offender then went on to commit a horrendous crime. This probably led students to think that even an offender who seems to have committed a non-serious crime can then turn to extremely violent offences.

- Immediately prior to this poll, the local newspapers and radio had made their own headlines about a series of burglaries which had happened in the region.

IV- What next?

Later, during tutorial sessions with about 50 of the same students I decided to use another question : « You are 28 and have left university a while ago (2nd year students are typically 19/21). One of your former friends from high school contacts you via Facebook. He explains to you that the reason why he had abruptly left high school when you were both 16, is that he had committed a series of armed robberies and as a result had served 5 years of imprisonment. He was released at 21 and has now totally turned his life around; has never committed another offence; has a house, a car, a wife, a child and a dog. Would you actually resume your relationship with him? »
I did not count as it was pretty much impromptu, but let’s say that by far, most of them said yes.

Next year, I intend to ask the same question to all my 2nd year students and to probably sophisticate this new small poll exercise.

My goal is to go a little beyond the limits of the ICS’ simplistic question and to partly correct the limitations attached to its simplicity (as showed by this year’s results). With the ICS question, one obtains an indication of students’ sentencing impulse; with my new set of questions, I would like to get an overall idea about their rehabilitation ideas: do they accept the idea that a person can redeem him or herself? Are they re-integrative?








In the academic year 2009-2010, I conducted for the first time, a students’ poll.

I polled my 2nd law students at the very beginning of the penology and sentencing class (Droit de la peine).

I used the International Crime Survey question, i.e. question number 1, which can be found in the appendix to this post (English and French).

This experiment was repeated in the academic year 2010-2011.


I launched this little experiment as I had had the impression, for several years, that students were tougher on crime than the general population. The ICS question about the young 21 year old burglar seemed a particularly good, yet simple, tool, as the ICS had used it for its past issues and provided clear cut statistics of general population opinion.

Indeed, the first two years, I obtained vastly different results: the first year, my students replied in a very similar vein to the French general population as showed in the successive ICS (also see: P. Mayhew and J. Van Kesteren, ‘Cross-national attitudes to punishment?’, in M. Hough and Julian V. Roberts (eds.), Changing Attitudes to Punishment. Public Opinion, Crime and Justice, Cullompton, Willan Publishing, 2002, pp. 63-92). For indeed, they largely preferred community work (see: second year, on the contrary, the students appeared extremely tough on crime, a significant proportion opting for very long sentences, including life. I posited that two reasons explained this change. First, the very same month when I polled my students, there had been a high profile case involving an offender on probation who had so far only committed a petty offence (contempt of court) and who ‘suddenly’ – or so it seemed as a closer look into his file would have revealed that he had previously attempted to sexually assault a co-inmate – went on to savagely murder a young woman just about the same age as my 2nd year students. Second, there was at the time intense coverage in the local news and papers of a gang of house burglars who operated in Reims and nearby Châlons en Champagne (see:



In this academic year 2011-2012, I decided to add new questions to the basic ICS one.  The ICS question is good in the sense that it can adapt to the 60 plus countries polled in the course of this international victimisation survey. However, it does not give much detail about the young man, which is deliberate as we all know that the more we know about a person, the less we tend to be punitive; in the absence of such details, people react impulsively based on the immediate emotion created by the information they received about the crime (eg: S. Maruna and A. King, ‘Public Opinion and community penalties’, in A. Bottoms, S. Rex, G. Robinson, Alternatives to prison. Options for an insecure society, Willan, Publishing, 2004: 83-112). This is because the ICS only wants to know what are people’s spontaneous and core instincts about the ‘right’ sentence. If this still interested me re my students I also wanted to determine whether they were re-integrative and whether, in real life situations, when it came to people they knew, they would welcome former offenders back into their lives.

In the course of previous desistance research  (‘Desisting in France: what probation officers know and do’,  EJProb, 2011, n° 3(2): 29-46, available at, I had suggested that French people were rather re-integrative and only wanted ex offenders to be discreet and live a normal life, whereby these offenders would wake up every morning, go to work, have a family, and so on; in other words they would just want them to be like the rest of us early risers. My research had showed that in France, there did not seem to be any of the Anglophone/protestant asking people to redeem themselves by overdoing ‘Making Good’. So I tailored my questions (three of them – see in appendix) so that they would:

-          Concern a friend of theirs – not a loved one; not someone they did not know. I wanted them to feel concerned, but not emotionally bound;

-          Concern various offenses: two serious, but not high profile ones (armed robbery and an ordinary homicide) and one where their former friend had been an addict, had not committed serious crimes, but had, as a consequence repeatedly offended;

-          Concern people who had desisted in a manner that I thought French people would respond to. I wanted them to be confronted to close to real life stories where people had committed offenses, but showed all the signs of a normal life: house, wife, car, and dog – I assume I should have added a job and probably will in the years to come.

-          Concern people who had desisted at various points in the past. The serious offenders had desisted a long time ago, as I assumed they would be more rejectful if their former friends had just been out of prison or were rookie desisters. However, I decided that the ex junkie should have desisted only two years ago, if only because addictions tend to be harder to shake off than delinquency, but also in order to test just how tolerant they could be.


As usual, I asked the four questions at the very beginning of my first penology and sentencing class in order to make sure that I would not have any influence on them in any way whatsoever.

The poll was done during an amphitheatre class, which is not the best place for debates. However, such formal classes are followed by ‘practical sessions’ (‘travaux dirigés’: ‘TD’) and my assistants and I will start our first TD by discussing the results in search of more details about the reasons behind their answers.



The results


128 students answered.



The first (ICS) question


This year’s students appeared less tough on crime than last year’s students, confirming that 2010-2011 answers were indeed linked to a conjunctural media situation.


-          31.2% of the students chose imprisonment;

-          19.2% chose a fine;

-          24.8% chose community work;

-          10.4% chose suspended sentence;

-          11.2% chose other;

-          3.2% of the answers could not be used.


Of those who chose imprisonment, the range of answers went from 1 month to life (two students), but concentrated between 3 months and 1 year.

74.3 chose a sentence of less and up to a year; 20.5 chose more than one year.


Of those who chose ‘other’ there was, as each year, a wide range of mixes: fine + forced work; fine + community work; semi-freedom; imprisonment + community work; suspended sentence + fine, imprisonment + fine; fine + EM. I also got the usual jokes, such as ‘four hours of penology class’ or ‘castration’.



The reintegration questions


The reintegration questions yielded extremely interesting results in line with what I had observed during smaller ‘T.D.’ classes: on the one hand, when it comes to sentencing people currently offending, law students appear tougher on crime than their fellow countrymen; on the other hand, they are very re-integrative when it comes to ex offenders.



The armed robber


-          94.48 of my students answered yes

-          5.52% answered no.



The murderer


-          67.74 of my students answered yes

-          32.25% answered no.


(some answers could not be used)



The addict


-          75.78% of my students answered yes

-          24.21% answered no.







After calculating the results, I used two in depth classes (TD) with smaller groups of students (respectively approx. 40 and 20) and tried and determine why they had answered the way they did. I also asked my assistants to do the same in their own groups. The goal was to try and determine why their answers were so different from those of the general population (for the ICS of 2004, 69% of French respondents chose community work; 13% chose imprisonment and amongst the latter, with mean being one year).


THE ICS question

The students were particularly talkative concerning the ICS question. During our workshops, we made several hypothesis.


First hypothesis: Both groups of students mentioned the influence of their General Penal Law class, which they had just had during the first semester: general penal law classes had exposed them to actual Penal Code tariffs. For instance, they knew simple theft was punishable by three years (six in the case of a repeat offender), non aggravated murder by thirty, premeditated murder by life, etc. Having these tariffs in mind, they had become used to imprisonment as being the norm. However, these tariffs are maxima and students also know that courts can pronounce much lower sentences and, in particular with felonies, always actually do so. This also might explain partly why they chose lower imprisonment sentences than the general population. Another explanation to this might be that whereas those who chose imprisonment in the general population were the most punitive and hence, logically, perhaps, chose longer sentences, students’ attitude to imprisonment was more laid back and legal:

We are just applying the Penal code rules that our professor taught us during the first semester’.

The penal code states that the sentence is imprisonment so imprisonment it should be!’

This would also mean that law students, unlike the rest of the population do not necessarily only react at an emotional level, but are able to mobilise actual knowledge about what the law states and what courts do. This would be particularly true with a poll that actually takes place during a class: they might react differently if the poll was done in another setting.


However, these students are only in their second year at law school and therefore have not yet been fully influenced by law studies. A debate ensued about where their opinions on crime came from. A minority mentioned their families – they probably were still at an age where they would reject family ideas – most mentioning their friends and their core personality. One of the students was quite shocked by her friends’ very lenient answers. She said she was the daughter of a military and knew how dangerous arms were.

Some of them mentioned that personal experience would also dictate what they thought: if they had been victimised themselves they would tend not to be too lenient.


This first hypothesis might also have explained why a good number of them chose a fine: the French Penal code always list both imprisonment and fine for each offence, thus habituating them to such a sentence, whereas the general public might reject a fine as being either too lenient or unpopular.

Another explanation of the relative attractiveness of fines could also result from the recent tougher on road offences policies which have saved 5000 lives per year, and which have heavily relied on fines (and draw on certainty of being apprehended as numerous radars have been installed on French roads). Even if a lot of French people resent them, the notion that it is necessary and has indeed saved lives seems to have also influenced their choice.

It was also voiced that a fine really made the person pay – in the literal sense – for his/her crime, echoing the renewed interest for fines in the Western world (T. O’Malley, The currency of justice. Fines and damages in consumer societies, Routledge-Cavendish, 2009).

He took a TV in order to get money, so the best way to punish him is to make him give money back’



Second hypothesis: the influence of law studies in general. The students I polled are second year law students. Therefore, they have already been influenced by law studies. Even if they are overall less ‘brainwashed’ than their older fellow students (eg the 5th year students I also teach to), and still retain what originally shaped them (family, friends, environment…) they also are in the process of becoming lawyers. Lawyers are trained to apply legal rules, and this is particularly true in a written law system. Studies in French universities tend to be very didactic and passive and legal reasoning is based on syllogistic analysis: lawyers are told to analyse a factual situation in order to label it with its correct legal tag (e.g. this is a theft rather than a robbery) and then to derive from the legal tag the written (sometimes jurisprudential) rule that applies to it. This habituates students not to go too deep – if at all – into the ethical or moral value of the consequence of applying the law and tends to encourage robotic reasoning – even if a lot of people resist such influence and if practitioners often have to move away from it. Second year students are therefore already used to analysing a situation in a syllogistic fashion and to draw automatic conclusions. Also, they are used to the idea that there are negative consequences to people’s mistakes and faults, something they have been consistently reminded of, not only in the course of their penal law classes, but also during their family law, contracts and tort classes.


Third hypothesis: generational effect. Some students posited that they were a ‘lost generation’, suffering from a host of difficulties unknown to their elders, and in particular severe chronic unemployment and lack of money and that this would: a) make them intolerant to people violating the law when they themselves would abide by the rules despite the hardship they went through; b) expose them to criminality since a lot of them lived in difficult urban environments (it must be borne in mind that university studies are very cheap in France, which means students come from truly diverse social backgrounds).


At the same time, another (fourth) hypothesis was suggested: that some students were lenient because they identified with the 21 year old: he was exactly the same age as them and ‘maybe had financial difficulties’ which they could relate to. As can be expected this was an additional reason why I chose to use the ICS in the first place.

‘He is too young for imprisonment’


Another observation with the ICS question – which matched in this respect the results from the two previous years – was that the choices made by the students were much more diverse than those of the general population. A significant proportion of them (40.8%) chose fines and suspended sentence or ‘other’, when the general population vastly concentrated on community sentence and imprisonment (only 12% chose the three other available sentences). It is rather easy to explain this: law students simply know more – or think they do – about other sentences and what they entail.


Precisely, when it came to particular sentences the debate with the students also proved fruitful.

As of imprisonment, Some of them still had rather simplistic expectations

:’ it will make him think about his actions’

‘let’s give him one year: he’ll learn some facts of life!


Others, who had chosen different sentences or a combination of sentences also voiced that this was just an answer to the need to punish, but that more needed to be done with the young burglar, in order to ‘make him change’.

Still, a lot of students reacted as lawyers (see infra) and insisted that he deserved prison because it was his second time.

Others insisted on the severity of the offence:

We mustn’t concentrate on the TV. The important thing here is that he actually penetrated in the home of someone’

However, if our results show that more students than the general population do choose prison, they are far from unanimous in doing so. All students had no doubt that prison was indeed a punishment. Yet when exposed to the literature which has showed that offenders will often choose prison over alternative sentences when the latter are too punitive (e.g. D. C. May and P. B. Wood, Ranking Correctional Punishments. Views from Offenders, Practitioners, and the Public, Carolina Academic Press, Durham, NC, 2010), from their point of view, in particular after a certain length of time, they were easily detoured from their initial point of view.

Also, a lot of students were dubious about the capacity of prison to reform people and some of them were in fact quite certain that it was more often than not detrimental to overall security:

the important issue here is what do we expect from the sentence: we must indeed punish but we must also rehabilitate. And the risk is that after having been jailed, that person will actually have become worse than he was’.

‘Prison is a delinquency academy!’

Some of them actually thought that prison itself was dangerous:

‘Being locked up can itself be dangerous! Putting him in a big pool with sexual offenders, murderers? Nah! He just stole a tv. He should not be in prison’


When it came to the length of imprisonment, the students were, as said above, rather lenient. They all regretted not to have more information about the young man and in particular why he committed offences, giving a hint that according to them, personal and environmental factors would be just as important as the offence itself when it came to selecting the sentence.

Most of them thought that beyond one year, the sentence would be too disproportionate:

‘Ok he did enter a person’s home, but it was just a TV and he’s just 21!’

Being lawyers, and having learnt about legal recidivism and reoffending, some of them also made a difference between two hypothesis: if the young man had not been previously sentenced they would be more lenient than if he had already been sentenced; indeed, in the French legal system, whereas in the first scenario, called ‘concours réel’, the person would not risk an aggravated sentence, in the second, called ‘récidive légale’ (legal recidivism) he would risk twice the normal sentence (see eg. Desporte and Le Gunehec, Droit pénal général, Paris, Economica, 2011 – comp.: J.V. Roberts and A. van Hirsh, Previous Convictions at Sentencing, Hart Publishing, 2010).

Not all students reasoned like lawyers. Some voiced rather general opinions about what should happen to recidivists and why:

He did not understand the first time: it’s time he is given a lesson!’


A lot of students explained that they had not chosen community work, contrasting with the general public, because they thought ‘it was just not punitive enough’

He’ll hear he’s got community work, do a few hours and laugh at the court when he leave it’

‘We are not in the railways building era; community work is useless today’

‘If he did not have priors we could be lenient and give him community work; but he has!’

When I asked them what they knew about community work, it became clear that despite having a superficial knowledge of what it was, students had no idea of the number of hours that were required (: legal maximum of 210 hours). Also, they had not thought about the punitive dimension of having to wake up every morning, work all day, take orders, this for dissocialised offenders who might have never worked. When exposed to actual cases where community work was applied and about the impact it had had on the person, they were much more interested in the dual dimension of this sentence: both punitive and resocialising. They were also particularly interested in – but strongly rejectful of – the English experience of making offenders sentenced to pay back visible to the public (Home Office, Distinctive Clothing for Offenders Undertaking Community Payback (revised), Probation Circular 19, 2008, London National Probation Service; N. Pamment and T. Ellis, « A Retrograde Step : The Potential Impact of High Visibility Uniforms Within Youth Justice Reparation », The Howard Journal, vol. 49, no 1, Feb. 2010, p. 18 s.). As suggested by Jacobs and Larrauri (Jacobs and Larrauri, ‘Are criminal convictions a public matter?’ The USA and Spain’, Punishment and Society, 2012, n° 14-1): 3-28), continental Europeans may have a very different attitudes towards privacy.

None of the students in the smaller groups seemed to be very interested in a suspended sentence. They explained that it did not make much sense:  they thought it was too lenient whilst not helping the person to desist. They would have been much more interested in a suspended sentence with probation, which was not an option in the ICS.



Other hypothesis were discussed that proved irrelevant.

One was the traditional observation that the public systematically underestimates what actual sentences are pronounced (M. Hough and J. V. Robert, ‘Sentencing trends in Britain: Public Knowledge and public opinion”, Punishment and Society 1999, n° 1(1): 11-25) although we do not know enough about this, particularly in Europe (see special ed. Of the European Journal of Criminology and the articles pertaining to the EUROS-JUSTIS project). Students, on the other hand, had a clearer view of what actual sentences were pronounced by courts.

Strangely, none of them mentioned the influence of the media to explain their answers to the ICS poll or to the other questions. When exposed to the result of the study by Boda and G. Szabo concerning the influence of the media on young Hungarian students aged 20-24 (Z. Boda and G. Szabo, ‘The media and attitudes towards crime and the justice system: A qualitative approach’, European Journal of Criminology, 2011, n° 8(4): 329-342), they confirmed that they did not consume much television, but instead, chose to stream films online and only read ‘20 minutes’ or ‘Metro’ types of newspapers when they came across them. They also added that they mistrusted the media in general, and tended to take everything they said or showed with more than a pinch of salt.




The results of the qualitative questions were particularly interesting. They confirmed, beyond what I could have imagined, just how rehabilitative French students were.

It did seem to confirm that French people, and law students in particular, did accept the fact that once people had paid their debt to society, they were welcome back. It also confirmed that they only wanted them to lead a normal life ‘like the rest of us’.

They also were quite unanimous to mention that the persons, except for the addict, had been very young when they committed their offence, at an age where they were not totally responsible for their actions.

He was a teenager! That’s the very age when you do silly things!’


The students, my assistants and I debated each one of the questions as their answers, albeit very positive, varied according to the crime that the person had committed.

This also generated a debate: what was their threshold? Most of them said they would not see their friends if he was a paedophile, although one of them actually said:

‘Maybe, I am not sure…’


It did not fundamentally surprise me that they would be more reticent to welcome back the murderer, as it was the most serious offence on the list.

Also, the question did not give much details about the fight in the bar, which some students pointed out: was he provoked, did he attack first, was the death an accident (i.e. manslaughter rather than homicide, which in France is still sometimes qualified as murder even though there is such an offence in the Penal Code called ‘violence leading to death without the intent to kill’), was he drunk (which for some was an aggravating factor, but a mitigating one for others)? And indeed there were still 67.74% of students who would welcome him back; a more than comfortable majority.

If this was a one off, then he’s actually less dangerous than the junkie’.

Still, those who answered ‘no’ to the question could not get passed the fact that a person was dead. This was deemed too serious for some:

OK we don’t know how it happened, but he killed someone!

With these three questions, it is plain that we all have our own values and thresholds. As far as I am concerned, it is OK with the robber and the addict, but not with the murderer’.

Those who said yes insisted that a homicide during a bar fight was probably accidental; that it would not have meant their friend wanted to kill. And again, the very young age of their friend was also an important reason why they were ready to forgive.


It is to be noted that in this particular case, the issue with the students was not so much what the person had become, but what he had done.


I was not surprised either by the more integrative – yet not unanimous – answers to the ex addict question: after all, I posited, they all had friends who were or had been in trouble with drugs or alcohol, some of which, as a result, flunked in high school or at university. Cannabis in particular was part of their culture. And indeed, during the discussion, several students confirmed that they had personally known people who had started as low key experimenters of cannabis but had then become heavy daily users, had dropped out of high school and were still ‘doing nothing with their lives’ to this day. A lot of them were very aware of the difficulty of dealing with an addiction.

‘Two years sober that’s an incredible achievement!’

Some of the students regretted not having more details on the drugs that he was taking.

Still, I found them very tolerant with someone who had a full criminal record and who had only quit drugs two years ago. Nonetheless, there were more dissonant – and perhaps more knowledgeable – opinions being voiced out by a minority:

I would personally not trust an addict who spent the most part of his life – from 28 to 33 for Christ sake! – doing drugs and who has only stopped two years ago. The smallest little problem in his life, for instance his wife asking for a divorce, and he’ll be back to it full force!’


It’s only been two years! He can relapse. Two years is therefore too early to trust him.’


The biggest surprise came with the armed robber question: their yes (94.48%) was bordering on the plebiscite! The debate proved even more interesting.

First, students did not seem to be very aware of the severity of such an offence, contrasting with actual judicial practice, which tends to be particularly punitive with armed robbers.

It is just pointing a gun at someone, not actually using it. For all we know it was just a fake one!’


It is not as bad as the addict who committed a hell of a lot of offences and this for years and years on. This guy has just done a series of mistakes with his mates.’


Second, students were insistent in all the groups that carrying a gun did not mean that one would use it – not realising that carrying a gun always involved such a risk:

He had an arm, but he chose not to use it’


Observing their smiling faces when saying this I realised that their voice and demeanour actually conveyed admiration:

You know, professor, French people always loved the Robin Hood myth, you know: taking from the rich and giving to the poor’


After all, armed robbers usually steal from banks and other rich firms, who won’t suffer from it’


It reminds me of these guys who had dug a huge tunnel under the ground which ended up inside a bank and who left with millions!

They were obviously having great fun remembering these ‘heroes’ – which in turn reminded me of similar experiences with 5th year students with whom I had worked on prison escape for several years (Herzog-Evans, L’évasion, Paris, l’Harmattan, 2009).

They seemed surprised to be reminded that a bank employee – not the bank itself – was actually at the end of the gun and that he/she had probably been severely traumatised.


I exposed them to the Making Good literature and to the fact that protestant/Anglophone countries might have more demanding expectations of ex offenders: rather than just asking them to ‘be like the rest of us’, they wanted them to continue to symbolically give back to society by doing good. This seemed to amuse the students quite a lot and, as my previous research seemed to have showed (M. Herzog-Evans, ‘Desisting in France: what probation officiers know and do. A first approach’, EJ prob. 2011, vol. 3, no 2, p. 29 s., v., that it was in sharp contrast with French culture:

Americans are so religious! We are not like that at all’


In one group of students, there was a debate about just how much they would trust their friend. Some said they would accept to be in contact with him, but not necessarily welcome him fully in their life. For some of them it was at this point important to determine whether the person had been a very good friend back in their teens or just an ordinary one. Other students expressed caution:

I would meet his wife and family to try and see just how strong his family life is’

Others said that as long as they themselves were bachelors they would say ‘yes’ to the question, but would probably be more prudent if they themselves had children.


The discussion ended in one group with students eager to understand ‘how is it possible to better help offenders stop offending’.


The debate was also revealing of how French people perceive sentences: the idea that a person has paid his debt and should not be further afflicted seems to be quite strong.

Students said that the offenders, in all the cases, had paid their debts and that the goals of punishment had been met:

If the person has not committed another offence, then the sentence has worked and we should not add anything more to it’

The sentence was something that society took care of and once it was passed and served, it was not for other people to add further blame or judgement:

It is not for us to judge once more people who have already been judged and have served their sentence’


Some students also mentioned that the community should also play a role in the person’s reinsertion:

He’s paid his debt ; if we do not give him a chance, if we leave him aside, then this is the best way to exclude him altogether. So we should help him out’


If we say no, it means that we do not trust Justice. He’s paid his debt. He does not have an incurable illness called delinquency!


‘The sentence itself is already a very strong social rejection. We should not add more rejection to it’





Appendix : The four questions



Students’ poll – English version


1) A 21 year man is arrested for burglary. He has stolen a colour TV from the house he has broken in. It turns out he has already been arrested in the past for burglary. This is all we know. People are asked what would the right sentence be:

- Prison? In which case please say for how long;

- Fine;

- Suspended sentence;

- Community work;

- Other? In which case, please specify.



2) You are 28 and have left university a while ago – 2nd year students are typically 19/21. One of your former friends from high school contacts you via Facebook. He explains to you that the reason why he had abruptly left high school when you were both 16, is that he had committed a series of armed robberies and, as a result, had served 5 years of imprisonment. He was released at 21 and has now totally turned his life around; has never committed another offence; has a house, a wife, a child, a car, and a dog. Would you actually resume your relationship with him?

3)  You are 35 and have left university a while ago. One of your former friends from high school contacts you via Facebook. He explains to you that the reason why he had abruptly left high school when you were both 16, is that he killed someone (in the course of a pub fight) and as a result had served 10 years of imprisonment. He was released at 26 and has now totally turned his life around; has never committed another offence; has a house, a car, a wife, a child, a car, and a dog. Would you actually resume your relationship with him?
4)  You are 35 and have left university a while ago. One of your former friends from high school contacts you via Facebook. He explains to you that the reason why he had abruptly left high school when you were both 16, is that he had a serious drug problem which escalated and lasted until two years ago. As a result he has been sentenced numerous times, to community sentences and to imprisonment. Two years ago he met his wife and since then, has turned his life around; has never committed another offence; has a house, a baby, a car and a dog. Would you actually resume your relationship with him?



Question pour le sondage d’opinion à destination des étudiants

Version Française


1) Un jeune home de 21 ans est arrêté pour cambriolage. Il a volé une télévision en couleur dans cette maison. L’on apprend – mais c’est tout ce que l’on sait – qu’il a déjà été arrêté dans le passé pour des faits similaires. Il vous est demandé de choisir entre l’une des 5 options suivantes :
- de l’emprisonnement, auquel cas il faut préciser pour quel quantum ;

- une amende ;

- un sursis simple ;

- un travail d’intérêt général ;

- autre et, en ce cas, préciser.



2) Vous avez 28 ans et avez quitté l’université depuis un petit bout de temps. L’un de vos anciens amis de lycée vous contacte via Facebook. Il vous explique que la raison pour laquelle il avait quitté abruptement l’école lorsque vous aviez tous les deux 16 ans est qu’il avait commis une série de vols à mains armée et qu’il a en conséquence purgé 5 ans d’emprisonnement. Il a ensuite été libéré à l’âge de 21 ans et a totalement changé d’existence ; n’a plus jamais commis d’infraction, a une maison, une femme, un enfant, une voiture et même un chien. Seriez-vous d’accord pour renouer avec lui ?


3) Vous avez 35 ans et avez quitté l’université depuis un petit bout de temps. L’un de vos anciens amis de lycée vous contacte via Facebook. Il vous explique que la raison pour laquelle il avait quitté abruptement l’école lorsque vous aviez tous les deux 16 ans est qu’il avait tué quelqu’un (à l’occasion d’une bagarre dans un bar) et qu’il a en conséquence purgé 10 ans d’emprisonnement. Il a ensuite été libéré à l’âge de 26 ans et a totalement changé d’existence ; n’a plus jamais commis d’infraction, a une maison, une femme, un enfant, une voiture et même un chien. Seriez-vous d’accord pour renouer avec lui ?


4) Vous avez 35 ans et avez quitté l’université depuis un petit bout de temps. L’un de vos anciens amis de lycée vous contacte via Facebook. Il vous explique que la raison pour laquelle il avait quitté abruptement l’école lorsque vous aviez tous les deux 16 ans est qu’il avait, à partir de là eu de sérieux problèmes de drogue qui ont ensuite empiré jusqu’à il y a deux ans. Il a en conséquence été condamné de multiple fois tantôt à des peines en milieu ouvert tantôt à de l’emprisonnement. Mais il y a deux ans, il a rencontré sa femme et depuis lors, a totalement changé d’existence. Il n’a plus jamais commis d’infraction, a une maison, un bébé, une voiture et même un chien. Seriez-vous d’accord pour renouer avec lui ?





I shan’t analyse in depth the fourth year results. However, they were rather different from the third year, even though students were still rehabilitative.

(what follows is for the time being in French)

Résultats sur 132 étudiants


1ère question (jeune homme de 21 ans voleur de tv

Pour l’emprisonnement : 23,48% (contre 31,2% l’an dernier)

-          3 ans : 9,67%

-          2 ans : 22,58%

-          1 an : 19,35%

-          6 mois : 22,58%

-          3 mois : 6,45%

-          2 mois : 3,22%

-          1 mois : 3,22%

-          De 4 à 6 mois : 3,22%

-          De 6 mois à un an : 6,45%

-          Indéterminé : 3,22%


Pour « autre » : 41,60% (contre 11,2 l’an dernier)

Dont beaucoup de combinaisons impossibles

-          Sursis simple + amende (possible) : 36,36%

-          PPL + amende (possible : 16,36%

-          Amende + TIG (possible) : 14,54%

-          Sursis simple ou SME + TIG (seul le second est possible mais ce doit être une peine distincte, le STIG) : 14,54%

-          SME partiellement ferme (possible) : 5,45%

-          Emprisonnement + TIG  (impossible): 7,27%

-          Stage de citoyenneté (impossible : peine complémentaire) : 1,8%

-          Au bagne casser des cailloux pendant un mois (impossible) : 1,8%

-          Trois mois forcés à écouter les cours de droit civil : 1,8%


Pour amende : 3,78% (contre 19,2% l’an dernier)

Pour sursis simple : 12,87% (contre 10,4% l’an dernier)


Pour TIG : 18,18% (contre 24,8% l’an dernier)


Donc globalement moins punitifs au regard de l’emprisonnement (moins choisi et surtout plus de peines supérieures à 3 ans), mais aiment encore moins le TIG et l’amende.

Et surtout un choix énorme d’autres sanctions, une tendance lourde chez les étudiants en droit, mais bien plus nette cette année.


2è question (vol à main armée)

Oui : 81,06% (contre 94,48% l’an dernier)

Non : 18,93% (contre 5,52% l’an dernier)


3e question (homicide bar)

Oui : 54,54% (contre 67,74% l’an dernier)

Non : 45,45% (contre 32,25% l’an dernier)


4e question : (toxicomane)

Oui : 66,41% (contre 75,78% l’an dernier)

Non : 33,58% (contre 24,21% l’an dernier)



Donc les étudiants sont moins réintégrateurs que l’an dernier, même s’ils le sont toujours beaucoup. Comme l’an dernier ils sont plus favorables au voleur à main armée, plus prudents avec l’homicidaire et cette fois plus prudent, mais toujours intégrateurs, envers le toxicomane.








This year my students confirmed being tougher on crime than the general population. They chose imprisonment even more frequently than the previous year.

In the media, a high profile case (Mougin case – serial murder and rape of young women, some of my students’ age) was just making the headlines. As usual they dislike community work and fines. They did not opt for ‘other’ as massively as the previous years.


Hereafter: the results in English then in French


Nota : 153 students answered some questions; 154 others.


1st question



-          Total of students choosing imprisonment only : 43.79%

-          Total of students choosing imprisonment plus something else (in ‘other’): 53.59%


23,48% in 2013 ; 31,2% in  2012

versus 13% only of French people in the 2004 ICS


Duration in total percentage ( N 153)

-          One month : 0.65%

-          Two month s : 1.96%

-          Three months : 1.30%

-         Six months: 5.22%

-          12 months: 6.53%

-          18 months: 0.65%

-         Two years : 5.88%%

-          3 years : 8.49%

-          4 years : 0.65%

-          5 years : 3.92%

-          10 years : 0.65%



Fine : 11.76%

3.78% in 2013 ; 19.2% in 2012


Suspended sentence : 12.41%

12,87% in 2013 ; 10.4% in 2012


TIG : 14.37%

18.18% in 2013 ; 24.8% in 2012 ;

versus 69% of French people in the 2004 ICS


Other total : 17.64%

41,60% in 2013 ; 11,2 in 2012 

The following choices are in percentage of the total of N153 answers  :

-         Fine and community work : 2,61%

-          Fine and imprisonment 5.22%

-          Fine and suspended imprisonment : 0.65%

-          Boot camp : 0.65%

-          Cutting his hand off : 0.65%

-          Suspended sentence plus community work : 0.65%

-          Part suspended sentence part part imprisonment: 2.61%

-          Part suspended sentence with probation and part imprisonment: 0.65%

-          Probation order: 2.61%

-          Suspended fine : 2.61%


Fun answers :

-          Three days of having one’s feet licked by a goat and a week of discovering François Hollande’s cattle

-          24 hours of discovery of Fodel’s new album


Second question

(armed robbery)

No: 18.23%

yes : 81.76%


Yes : 81,06% in 2013 ; 94,48% in 2012


Third question

(bar homicide )

No: 40.21%

yes : 59.74%


yes : 54,54% in 2013 ; 67,74% in 2012


Fourth question



No: 39.21%

yes : 60.78%


Yes : 66,41% in 2013 ;  75,78% in 2012




Nota : 153 étudiants ont répondu à la plupart des questions

Sur certaines : 154


Réponses à la première question



-          Absolu : 43.79%

-          Y compris ‘autre’ comprenant emprisonnement : 53.59%


23,48% en 2013 et 31,2% en 2012 ; 31.2% en 2011

Et versus 13% seulement des français l’International Crime Survey de 2004


Quanta proposés (en pourcentage du total de réponses N 153)

-          Un mois : 0.65%

-          Deux mois : 1.96%

-          Trois mois : 1.30%

-          6 mois : 5.22%

-          12 mois : 6.53%

-          18 mois : 0.65%

-          2 ans : 5.88%%

-          3 ans : 8.49%

-          4 ans : 0.65%

-          5 ans : 3.92%

-          10 ans : 0.65%



Amende : 11.76%

3.78% en 2013 ; 19.2% en 2012


Sursis simple : 12.41%

12,87% en 2013 ; 10.4% en 2012


TIG : 14.37%

18.18% en 2013 ; 24.8% en 2012 ;  24.8% en 2012

Et versus 69% des français dans l’International Crime Survey de 2004


Autre  total : 17.64%

41,60% en 2013 ; 11,2 en 2012 

Répartis comme suit (en pourcentage de l’ensemble et non seulement de ‘autres’) :

-          Amende et TIG  : 2,61%

-          Amende et emprisonnement: 5.22%

-          Amende et sursis  : 0.65%

-          Boot camp : 0.65%

-          Point coupé : 0.65%

-          Sursis et TIG  : 0.65%

-          Peine mixte SS + ferme : 2.61%

-          Peine mixte SME + ferme : 0.65%

-          SME : 2.61%

-          Amende avec sursis : 2.61%


Fun answers :

-          Trois jours de léchage de pied par une chèvre °+ une semaine avec François Hollande de découverte de son cheptel

-          24 heures de découverte de l’album de Fodel


Réponses à la deuxième question

(voleur à main armée)

Non 18.23%

Oui : 81.76%


Oui : 81,06% en 2013 ; 94,48% en 2012


Réponses à la troisième question

(homicide bar)

Non 40.21%

Oui : 59.74%


Oui : 54,54% en 2013 ; 67,74% en 2012


Réponses à la quatrieme question



Non 39.21%

Oui : 60.78%


Oui : 66,41% en 2013 ;  75,78% en 2012




Une réponse à French law students and crime/les étudiants en droit et la délinquance

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