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Remorse and responsibility in the criminal justice system

21 June 2023

A new book exploring expressions of remorse and the acceptance of responsibility by defendants has been published by a Cardiff law Professor.

Professor Stewart Field has teamed up with Professor Cyrus Tata of the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow to write Criminal Justice and the Ideal Defendant in the making of Remorse and Responsibility (Oxford: Hart).

The book investigates the significance of remorse and responsibility within the Anglo-American and Continental European criminal justice systems and argues that ‘ideal defendants’ are expected to display certain attitudes towards their alleged offences. Specifically, they are expected to demonstrate clear acceptance of their personal responsibility and to express ‘genuine’ remorse.

Although many defendants fall short of this ideal, criminal justice practitioners encourage them to align themselves to it as much as possible and defendants are treated more or less severely by the system in light of their performance of these expectations.

Speaking about the book, Professor Field explained, “We wanted to bring together 2 bodies of criminal justice research that have both developed significantly in the last decade but largely in isolation from each other. The first is about classification: the various ways in which criminal justice operates by sorting defendants into different categories before dealing with them. The second is about the role of emotion.

These 2 areas don’t look as if they belong together. But the book shows the way that emotions like remorse play a key role in the sorting and classification of defendants and their subsequent treatment within the system.”

The book shows that remorse and the acceptance of responsibility are constructed in the dialogue between defendants and practitioners in the criminal process. This ‘making’ of remorse and responsibility has its dark side. It may lead to reintegration or restoration of mutual respect between the state and citizen. But it is often subject to cultural misinterpretations and unrealistic expectations. This produces paradoxes: criminal justice systems want to see ‘genuine’ remorse but reward defendants for showing it and punish them if they don't. How can this structure of incentives sit alongside a desire for expressions of genuine emotions?

Further information on Criminal Justice and the Ideal Defendant in the making of Remorse and Responsibility can be found on the Bloomsbury Collections website.

Professor Field teaches on evidence, comparative law and French public law modules at the School of Law and Politics.

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