Defendants’ Understanding of Sentencing

By Jessica Goldring
The sentencing framework is premised on an assumption that defendants understand how the process works and will respond accordingly. For example, they will be deterred by the prospect of longer sentences or will enter a guilty plea at the first opportunity to maximise their sentence reduction.
Without a full understanding of the nature and consequences of their sentence, defendants will be less likely to accept the legitimacy of the sentence, and possibly less likely to comply with any conditions.1
Moreover, compliance with licence conditions is more likely if offenders are aware that breach of conditions will have consequences – for example, recall to court.2 Finally, desistance may be more likely if ex-offenders believe that further offending will lead to prosecution and additional punishment. For a variety of reasons, then, it is important to determine whether defendants understand the sentencing process, the specific elements of their sentence, and the reasons for that sentence.
This paper examines defendants’ understanding of sentencing. It provides an overview of research on defendant understanding and identifies key research priorities. As the research in England and Wales is limited, some research from Scotland is also included.
Read the full report here.