Denying Responsibility: Sentencers’ Accounts of their Decisions to Imprison

Published: January 2009

The reasons for dramatic rises in prison populations are the focus of much debate. This paper examines just one of these: the sentencing practices of the judiciary who play a pivotal role both in determining the use of imprisonment itself and in the severity of prison sentences. Drawing on research with Scottish sentencers, it explores how they made decisions to imprison, how they viewed prison, how they justified sending people there and how ‘borderline’ offenders were dealt with. We found that although sentencers viewed imprisonment as a severe punishment, they normalized their routine incarceration of individuals by, in effect, denying final responsibility for their actions. Sentencers’ accounts of borderline decisions, in which individuals committing the same offence could be accorded either a custodial or a community disposal, illustrated these denials most starkly and revealed an overarching retributivism in their custodial decisions. This retributivism was without proportionality in so far as it was directed at the offender rather than proportionate to the offence. In conclusion, we argue for future sentencing policies and legislation to take heed of sentencers’ logic in use.

Authors / Editors

Research Themes

Criminal Justice Process and Institutions