Meet the Book Editors: Criminal Justice and the Ideal Defendant in the making of Remorse and Responsibility

Stewart Field, Cardiff University and Cyrus Tata, Strathclyde University Law School

Criminal Justice and The Ideal Defendant in the Making of Remorse and Responsibility was published by Bloomsbury in May 2023.

What is the book about? 

This book is about the significance of remorse and responsibility to the functioning of a variety of criminal justice systems across the world. It shows that there is an implicit model of the ‘ideal defendant’ at work. 

Defendants are expected to display certain attitudes towards the courts, their alleged offences and their possible future offending. Specifically, they should demonstrate clear acceptance of their personal responsibility and express ‘genuine’ remorse. Many defendants fall short of this ideal; but they are encouraged by criminal justice practitioners throughout the system to align themselves as closely as possible to it. And they will be evaluated and treated by the system (more severely or more leniently) in the light of their performance of these expectations. 

This a process that operates throughout the various stages of the justice process. The book examines not just criminal trials and sentencing, but also the operation of rehabilitation, parole and restorative justice.

So we are using the term ‘defendant’ in a broad sense to designate anyone proceeded against by state criminal justice. 

In practice, this means that remorse and acceptance of responsibility are not objective qualities ‘out there’ to be discovered in particular defendants or particular cases: they are constructed in the criminal justice process through routine interactions between defendants and practitioners. This ‘making’ of remorse and responsibility is fraught with cultural misinterpretations and unrealistic expectations. Yet, it serves an important latent function for the state and for practitioners. Acceptance of remorse and responsibility by defendants signals publicly that defendants acknowledge the legitimacy of their own punishment. This reassures practitioners that the routine coercion of the system does not represent injustice. And it enables the public enactment of an apparently shared understanding between state and citizen after a moment of rupture in their relationship. 

The introductory chapter sets out the key themes of the book and summarises its individual chapters. It is available to read for free via open access

Why did we edit it? 

The book is seeking to bring together two bodies of criminal justice scholarship that have developed largely in isolation from each other. 

First, there is work on the way that criminal justice practitioners use and apply certain forms of classification as a means of sorting and dealing with defendants. These can be social categories (such as gender, race, and social class). They can be categories based on state managerial tools (especially risk-management assessments) or performance indicators (such as speed, cost and efficiency). But what part do defendants’ emotions or images of self play in these processes of classification and sorting? These studies largely ignore those questions. 

Yet the role of emotion has become central to a vast developing international body of criminal justice scholarship. Part of this attention to emotion has been focused on remorse and its relationship with criminal responsibility. The literature has addressed many important questions: whether remorse affects the tendency to reoffend; its relationship with risk; the feelings of victims; and public attitudes to the role of remorse in sentencing. There is work on whether remorse ought to be a factor in decision-making (particularly in sentencing and parole) and how it relates to philosophical theories justifying punishment. But this body of scholarship has not considered what role emotions like remorse might play in the classification of defendants and their efficient processing by the state. 

The book argues that emotions are themselves a key consideration in the categorisation of defendants and have significant consequences for the managerial efficiency of the criminal justice system. If defendants want continued recognition as an individual, as a citizen and as a member of the community, they have to conform to certain expectations about appropriate displays of emotion (specifically remorse and the acceptance of responsibility). 

The result may not always be catharsis, healing or even genuine recognition of the unique individual. So the book investigates the challenges and paradoxes that emerge when emotions such as remorse become part of a system of normalized expectations. It goes beyond the distinct bodies of research on emotion and classification to examine what happens when emotion itself becomes classified.

How did we go about doing this research?

The book is a classic illustration of the benefits of international collaboration and the importance of the role played by Cardiff’s Centre of  Law and Society in funding new and innovative socio-legal initiatives. The Centre funded a workshop in Cardiff in September 2018 which brought together all the authors to present preliminary versions of their papers. 

There were rich discussions over two days of both individual papers and the collective project which involved both authors and a broader audience. The experience and insights feeding into that discussion were truly international with original contributors from Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Slovenia, Scotland, the United States and Wales. Since then, collective discussion and editing has taken place through the modern wonders of digital communication and through the challenges of a global pandemic. Through it all we have been lucky to work with a wonderful editorial, copy-editing and marketing team at Hart/Bloomsbury. 

We think the book brings something new to established themes and opens new paths for research. We would love to get comments and feedback from readers to continue the discussions and guide those new paths. 

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