Penal Communication in Crown Court Sentencing
This dissertation explores the nature of communication in sentencing remarks by judges in three Crown Court sites in South East England in order to form a sound basis for the evaluation of penal practices. It seeks specifically to uncover how, if at all, the notion of penal censure operates in this context. Sentencing is a key aspect of the criminal justice response to offending, and while there is a small but growing strand of research focusing on decision-making in sentencing, very little theoretical or empirical attention has been paid to judges’ approaches to communication at this significant moment. The topic is important for three main reasons: judicial pronouncements at sentencing have the potential to impact defendants’ desistance pathways, to affect victims’ abilities to move on with their lives, and to influence wider public perceptions of the legitimacy of justice, and confidence that criminal justice powers are used rightly. I seek to contribute to our knowledge by presenting a new account of Crown Court sentencing in 21st Century England, and by demonstrating that judicial communication at sentencing carries wider implications for the morality of our penal practices.
The thesis is grounded in an empirical study comprising two parts: observation of sentencing in 50 cases involving 58 defendants and covering a range of offences, and a series of semi-structured interviews with 20 Crown Court judges. Most of the observed cases were presided over by the judges I interviewed, providing a rare opportunity to obtain insights into judicial behaviour in real cases from two perspectives. In presenting my findings I demonstrate the chaotic nature of the court context in which sentencing takes place and develop a fourfold typology of communication that emerged from the data: i) judges’ expressive use of ritual denunciation for public audiences, ii) the sharp treatment of defendants in the hope of deterring them from future offending, iii) some efforts to engage with defendants in a counselling manner to promote desistance, and iv) a communicatively arid, professional-focussed approach to sentencing that distances lay participants. By interrogating the nature of these different communicative approaches and judges’ perceptions of them, I illustrate a radical misalignment with censure-based theories of punishment that so readily cite expression as justification, and I highlight four interrelated critical problems for the legitimacy of sentencing. I argue that our current penal practices and their flaws are sustained not only by what defendants are sentenced to, but also by the way in which their sentences are passed.