Wednesday, March 24, 2010

J. Donovan's "Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries"

James Donovan is associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University at Mont Alto.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, and reported the following:
On page 99 of the book there is a table showing that in nineteenth century France the conviction rate for recidivists tried for felonies was much higher than the conviction rate for first-time offenders. This was evidently because, as stated on the page, in “nineteenth-century France, as in eighteenth century England, the character of the accused person had a significant influence on the jury verdict…” In this sense, page 99 is representative of the book, which shows how in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries juries (introduced in 1791) influenced the transformation of the French criminal justice system from one which tried the crime to one which tried the criminal, or toward an individualization of punishment. The panels exhibited much independence from the judicial and political authorities. Sometimes juries nullified the law in cases where social norms conflicted with its letter. More often, the panels acquitted accused persons or convicted them on reduced charges because jurors found the punishments too harsh.

The book uses evidence derived from Ministry of Justice reports and statistics and the writings of many contemporary jurists to show how juries played an essential role in bringing about penal reforms in France. Legislators responded to juror resistance to the harsh and inflexible punishments in the Napoleonic Penal Code by gradually enacting laws lowering penalties for certain crimes or giving jurors legal means to reduce them. But the ultimate outcome was paradoxical. Because of persistently high acquittal rates, governments eventually found means to reduce the powers of juries by removing many cases from jury trial and finally by destroying the independence of the panels in 1941.
Learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue