Respect and Legitimacy at Sentencing: November 2021

By Dr Gabrielle Watson
This paper offers a rare joint discussion of respect and legitimacy at sentencing in England and Wales.

A review of research reveals that relatively little is known about defendants’ perceptions of legitimacy at sentencing, and even less about their perceptions of respect, despite the dominance of these concepts elsewhere in criminal justice.


There are limited empirical findings on the precise operation and implications of legitimacy at sentencing and no empirical findings on the operation and implications of respect. Perhaps the most important finding to date is that court users – defendants, victims, and witnesses – perceive the court process as broadly legitimate and obey the rules of the process not because they are forced to do so, but because they feel obliged to do so (Jacobson et al. 2015).


Most research on legitimacy and respect at sentencing has yet to move beyond the stage of mere hypothesis. Researchers have suggested, for example, that respect is best understood as a key criterion for legitimate sentencing. Others have made the related claim that legitimate sentencing enhances citizen-state relations and promotes offender compliance with the sentence imposed. In the US context, researchers have advocated remorse-based sentence reductions as a way of showing respect to offenders. Yet, these matters remain far from clear-cut and we will only make tangible progress by prioritising empirical analysis in the future.


Moving forward, researchers might explore the extent to which increasing the degree of respect accorded to defendants has the consequential benefit of increasing their compliance with the sentence imposed. Is it the case that offenders who feel disrespected are less likely to comply with court orders and possibly less likely to desist? And if this relationship holds, is it mediated by perceptions of a lack of legitimacy?


Ultimately, this paper recommends that researchers and practitioners treat respect and legitimacy not as abstract ideals but as grounded and pragmatic concepts with a lasting contribution to make to sentencing policy and practice.
Read the full report Here