Freedom monitored in minors mode

In a 1949 text entitled the Criminal Child, Jean Genet denounced the “Trap of good intentions” which, according to him, constituted the ordinance of 1945 on delinquent youth. “The young criminal, he writes, refuses the indulgent understanding, and its solicitude, of a society against which it has just rebelled. ” What he condemns is the whole socio-educational system developed since the beginning of the XXe century to provide a substitute for juvenile prison and work for the recovery of young offenders. At the crossroads of the history of childhood and that of justice, Guillaume Périssol offers a comparative perspective on this question, which endeavors as much to retrace the genesis of this system as to assess its effects on “Irregular youth” from the 50s.

The American detour is essential here. Emanation of Protestant philanthropy and the movement of social settlements introduced by Jane Adams at the end of the XIXe century, the first court for children is born in Chicago in 1899. Its goal was to protect the minors, to save them from the prison by means of the supervised freedom. The religious and familialist influence was clear, but it was linked to a whole current of “Judicial neo-humanism” (the expression is from the lawyer Jean Chazal) who intended to individualize sentences as much as possible, prevent and educate rather than repress. The movement then spread to other cities such as Boston, where the juvenile court was created in 1906, and convened many professions: educators, social workers, psychologists, etc. In 1933, psychiatrist William Healy founded the Boston Guidance Center, an educational and anti-prison institution, whose teams worked to re-socialize young people in difficulty. The return to prosperity, the best redistribution that the Welfare State allowed, the massification of education in high schools and the ideal of the middle class accentuated this system in the middle of the XXe century.


France followed this movement with delay. The juvenile courts that sprang up in 1912 had the same concern for protection and re-education, but they struggled to find their autonomy. Certain initiatives were decisive, such as that of the American Chloe Owings, author of the first thesis on the subject and founder in 1923 of the Social Service of children in moral danger. But it is really necessary to await the Liberation so that, in the context of the penitentiary reform driven by Marc Amor and the theories of the new social defense, are taken effective measures. At the observation centers of Savigny-sur-Orge (for boys) and Chevilly-Larue (for girls), opened in a hurry in 1945, these new rehabilitative conceptions of justice are taking root. In 1951 a specialized training center for educators was founded in Vaucresson.

But the great merit of Périssol’s book is to associate with this institutional approach a more social study, based on the analysis of some 400 cases of minors passed by the Seine court or by the juvenile court from Boston at the beginning of the 1950s. It is not surprising that most of these young people are boys from 14 to 17 years old, from popular backgrounds, guilty of theft, running away from school or truancy. The 25% of girls say above all that they are «Cavaleuses», thus bringing down on their sex the forms of transgression.

The examples evoked above all invite us to qualify the rehabilitation dimension of the system. In France as in the United States, the methods of evaluation remain inquisitive: surveys or newsletters often use stigmatizing shortcuts, with strong moral resonance, to bring abrupt conclusions.


Some, like neuropsychiatrist Georges Heuyer, maintain readings “Constitutionalists” who diagnose children “perverse”, “weak”, victims of hereditary defects. The principles, however generous, are often defeated by the permanence of archaic reflexes or by the insufficiency of means. Furthermore, education has never really abolished the repressive. In Boston as in Paris (not to mention even some “prisons for children”), the prison remains always on the edge, in some pavilions, in certain punishments. A culture of control, animated by the will to know everything, succeeds that of confinement, often making supervised freedom a “Insidious oxymoron”.

Dominique Kalifa

Guillaume Périssol The right way. Young offenders in France and the United States in the middle of the XXe century PUF, 576 pp., € 25 (ebook: € 19.99).


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