Saturday, October 9, 2004

A backlog of criminal cases awaiting trial has prompted France to change its judicial system by introducing plea bargaining.

The new law, called Perben II after Justice Minister Dominique Perben, ends the practice in which all defendants go to trial, including those who admit their guilt.

“The lawyer is at the center of the procedure,” Mr. Perben said of the law, which took effect last week.

“It is the first time in the text of a law that the presence of a lawyer is made compulsory,” he said. “He or she will be able to reject the suggestion made by the public prosecutor’s office.”

The new law enables the prosecutor to suggest a maximum one-year prison penalty to a defendant who is willing to plead guilty or who does not contest the criminal charges.

It applies to misdemeanors and felonies with maximum sentences of up to five years in prison.

The law represents an attempt to ease a backlog of court cases and prison overcrowding, presumably because one can bargain for a lesser sentence by admitting guilt.

It is part of a larger package of legal reforms that includes expanded police powers to fight ordinary crime and terrorism.

Not everyone is happy with the change, especially civil libertarians.

“With the plea-bargaining procedure, you dodge the trial. You shift to administered repression, and you leave the door wide open to suspicion of any kind,” said Robert Badinter, a former French justice minister who obtained abolition of the death penalty in 1981 and is involved in the defense of civil liberties.

“What is hallowed in the Declaration of Human Rights is the assurance for any citizen that the power will not be exercised upon him or her in an arbitrary or immoderate way,” Mr. Badinter said.

Trials require weeks, months or sometimes years, while guilty pleas often can be arranged in minutes.

Also, the outcome of any given trial is usually unpredictable, but a plea bargain provides both prosecution and defense with some control over the result, supporters of the new law say.

French officials acknowledge that the new law was influenced by the American system, but they say it is still European.

Since the 1980s, European countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain have introduced plea bargaining.

Unlike in the United States, French and other European plea bargains can be used only at the beginning of court proceedings and only for relatively minor offenses.

Opponents, including many judges and lawyers, say that prosecutors’ powers are being widened at the expense of justice and human rights.

They also worry that plea bargaining will cause innocent people to say they are guilty in order to avoid a heavier sentence at trial.

In addition, opponents fear plea bargaining will enable the government to cover up corruption and embezzlement scandals more easily.

To protect against corruption, Mr. Perben said, “Once legal proceedings have begun, the plea bargaining can no longer be used. There are enough safeguards in the provisions of the law.”

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