by Susan J. Terrio. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 368pp. Cloth. $75.00. ISBN: 9780804759595. Paper. $24.95. ISBN: 9780804759601.

Reviewed by Clare Ryan and Patrick Schmidt, Department of Political Science, Macalester College. Email: clare.f.ryan [at] gmail.com and schmidtp [at] macalester.edu.


The surge of interest in constitutionalism, flowering in the wake of post-1989 legal transplants and the growth of human rights regimes, has sometimes passed over older or less visible cross-national transfers. The juvenile court, an American invention long embedded elsewhere, is one such vehicle capable of illustrating the deep connections between legal institutions, individuals, and cultures. The international notice garnered by the 2005 suburban riots drew to attention the deep racial tensions in France and simultaneously provides a useful frame for Susan Terrio’s project of understanding juvenile courts as a site of conflict between the dominant social order – particularly the ideological and cultural biases of “French identity”– and the racial, religious, and ethnic diversity of contemporary France. Whatever its limitations, JUDGING MOHAMMED’s exploratory, anthropological study of Parisian juvenile courts offers readers an insightful journey through the juvenile justice system, with particular interest for those interested in comparative judicial studies or race relations in France.

Terrio’s fieldwork of observations and interviews began in 2000, well before the rioting fixed our gaze. Since 2005, with elevated political stakes, the clash between France’s foreign population (and their French children) and its legal and political structures has been vaguely credited to problems with immigration, integration, criminal youth, and Islam. Then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s reaction to the riots, which included calling youth from suburban slums “trash” and promising to deport large numbers of illegal immigrants, was heard around the world, and his election as president added weight to his voice. France walks an uncertain path between its self-image as a human rights leader and its mounting fear of “young, lawless foreigners.” But beyond television footage of rock-throwing youths, racial tension manifests itself in a number of ways which resist examination, particularly because France’s assertion of √©galit√© means they do not recognize or use “race” as a category in the collection of statistics. The traditional barriers to observation of juvenile court processes (in France and elsewhere) add to the difficulty. Terrio’s enterprising efforts to gain access to juvenile courts, amid a legal culture that resist challenges to its authority, are worthy of recognition.

As Terrio notes in a wide-ranging opening chapter, many important questions intersect here, and since she seems to want to pursue all of them, in a sense the first four chapters aim to provide all the possible historical and [*514] thematic frames necessary for understanding the ethnographic data. One of the dominant questions, and one of those most ripe for comparative study, lay in the ebb and flow of rehabilitative and punitive models of juvenile justice. Long a common refrain in the American juvenile justice literature, Terrio tells a comprehensive narrative about juvenile court development in France since its creation in 1945, with an arc similar to that of America’s juvenile system, where early rehabilitative goals get eroded by public safety concerns driven by media constructions of a crisis, demands for greater accountability for juvenile offenders, and a lack of resources to help endangered youth. Her account does not simply mimic those of the American experience, however. She also provides a detailed description of the French inquisitorial system, whose principles and legal values dramatically change the larger legal and political context of the developing juvenile court. (Anglo-American readers with a predisposition for the adversarial model may nod approvingly through this discussion, anticipating that Terrio is setting up later chapters’ report that minority youths are frequently denied meaningful due process.) Further, her treatment of French criminal procedure in the context of the historic French concern for social order over the rights of individuals contributes a valuable picture of the whole French attitude toward crime, punishment and rehabilitation, which is often missing – or assumed – in American scholarship on juvenile courts.

Terrio is fiercely critical of the French juvenile court’s move toward punitive reform and the corresponding cultural attack on children of immigrants, painting a portrait of a strict divide between the white, middle to upper-middle class, majority female court personnel and the poor, typically male, African and Asian population of juvenile “delinquents” who are overwhelmingly the constituents of the court system. Lacking a meaningful adversarial process, court actors – even those that emphasize rehabilitation – participate in a process that labels youth as guilty and denigrates them and their families. As she later notes, “Throughout France the courts are run by mainstream French professionals who prosecute and try those of immigrant and foreign ancestry. The implicit message is that the juvenile courts are not ‘for’ the French except in the relatively rare cases where those from the mainstream population end up at trial” (p.219). Her approach finds added depth, particularly in Chapter Three, by linking the political currents surrounding delinquency with the veins of French social science (including studies in ethnopsychiatry) that produce a “delinquency of exclusion,” a perspective shared by both court actors and politicians blaming immigrant cultures for disproportionate numbers of children of immigrants in the juvenile justice system. The thought that racism – in the police, in the judicial system, in social services, in French society – may play a role in the essentially all-minority composition of the French juvenile system strikes Terrio’s subjects are anathema. Instead, the currents of social science research accord with the dominant view that immigrant delinquency stems from the clash of values (family, parenting, work ethic, and the like) between immigrant cultures and mainstream French culture. In the course of the book, which occasionally employs a first-person voice as a chronicle of her experience and personal [*515] reflection on what she witnessed, Terrio provides myriad stunning illustrations of the court’s attitude toward immigrant families and the judges’ perception of inherent cultural handicaps to French integration.

Chapters Five through Seven unfold in the mode of the venerable studies of courts by organizational sociologists and political scientists, following the path of youth through arrest, informal pre-trial processes, and eventually formal court proceedings. Chapter Eight, the last before a brief concluding chapter, spans these processes with a special look at the problem of undocumented minors. The bulk of these fast-moving chapters consists of cases Terrio has observed, and though we must take on faith that they are representative, they are well illustrated through dialogue and spun persuasively in light of the case she builds against French juvenile justice. Legal details are kept at a minimum, and she toys with innumerable interesting themes, from spatial relationships in the courtroom to the linguistic power of the French tu and vous forms of address. Such is the richness of the new ground she is uncovering that she could follow so many new directions. Her forays will reward the reader who can make a meal out of tantalizing but tiny hors d’oeuvres. This is also the case with Terrio’s repeated mention of France’s “colonial past” and the relationship of colonialism to French treatment of immigrants; another example lay in her passing treatment of French attitudes toward multiculturalism. Similarly, Terrio uses as a hook for the later chapters the notion that the biased interactions of the parties in juvenile courts threatens the legitimacy of liberal democracy. Yet, as important as that suggestion may be in light of the recent violence, the idea is unexplored. Still, she has done a service by marking the possibilities, and many readers will enjoy considering the implications of the foundational evidence Terrio provides. A more serious concern with the book is that readers may not always be willing to accept Terrio’s interpretations of her observations. In her sometimes not-so-subtle attempt to criticize the French court for its condemnation of immigrant culture, Terrio occasionally undermines her own assertions. While criticizing the court for its cultural generalizations, in the same breath Terrio claims to know how African fathers feel when confronted by legal sanctions. Without interviewing these men, Terrio asserts that “They felt targeted as bad parents,” arguing that their “appearance in court was particularly traumatic, because the stigma of cultural difference they had hoped to keep at bay was both visible and intensified under court scrutiny” (p.231). Perhaps to have witnessed the faces she saw and the full dialogues she heard, we could conclude the same; only, her reading of them does not always leap from the data.

Naturally her methodological approach, like any, has its hazards, and Terrio’s tone and attitude seem to shift whenever she moves from interviewer to court observer. Rather unsettled by her position within the court, where her race and other characteristics link her to the court professionals, she explicitly reflects that she “did not anticipate that the space of the court as . . . an architecture of control would constrain me to the extent that it did. . . Most [juveniles] were ready to believe that I was a judge or affiliated with the court” (p.31). Terrio is also clear about her [*516] own political perspective, writing, “I should point out that my position as an objective observer of the juvenile court proceedings was compromised by the fact that, given my family background, I am a strong proponent of prevention and rehabilitation” (p.30). Bursts of frustration about her complicated position in the court come through at various points during the narrative, including a particularly revealing incident where the prosecutor uses her to prove a point about a juvenile’s culpability. Clearly she is attentive to the problem, but both forces beyond her control and her own limits may sometimes cause the cautious reader to recoil with skepticism.

For comparative scholars of courts, JUDGING MOHAMMED should be read for how it illuminates professional identity among the French judiciary. Terrio reveals a fascinating French legal culture, produced by training all judges at the same professional school in Bordeaux, from which juvenile judgeship is the lowest position in a highly competitive professional community. “Making a career [as a juvenile judge] is considered an ‘unfortunate’ choice,” Terrio writes, “because it suggests insufficient talent or ambition” (p.96). Her remarkable interviews with several key members of the Paris juvenile court set up powerful juxtapositions between the occasionally brutal and surprisingly candid remarks made by court actors and her observations of daily juvenile court experience. She quotes one judge as saying, “So you’re suggesting that there is racism in France? . . . No, Madame, there is always a possibility to make it here” (p.129). Terrio highlights beautifully the contradictions in a system where external critics call juvenile judges too soft, but where the attitudes displayed in practice belie a much harsher perspective on the “immigrant problem.” In fact, for the window she provides, a more accurate title for this book might be Mohammed’s Judge.

For whatever purpose one might read the book, and despite the limitations of this foray into the French justice system, her observations provide a unique and largely compelling view of a legal world often hidden from public view. Those familiar with France’s almost hostile silence on the issue of institutional racism will likely be sympathetic to her openly critical perspective, while it may grate more for those reading it as a study in judicial politics. Even so, Terrio’s accessible, personable narration and wide-ranging inquiry makes her an excellent tour guide for the twists and turns of French juvenile justice, the side of Paris that tourists do not see though it sits just steps away from Notre Dame.

© Copyright 2009 by the authors, Clare Ryan and Patrick Schmidt.