A sense of justice: the role of pre-sentence reports in the production (and disruption) of guilt and guilty pleas

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The criminal justice process in the lower and intermediate courts depends on defendants admitting guilt and being seen to do so voluntarily. Hitherto, there has been limited academic consideration of how pre-sentence reports and their associated processes interact with the dynamics of guilty pleas. Drawing on recent research following through the production, use, and interpretation of a sample of reports, this article concentrates on the troubling inconsistency with which legal professionals (especially judges and lawyers) are continually confronted: namely, between their ideals of ‘proper’ legal justice and the pragmatic daily reality in which they have to participate. How do legal professionals manage this sense of inconsistency? The article suggests that reports are vital to enabling legal professionals to process defendants in good, or at least not bad, conscience. In particular, reports pacify the lingering unease felt by legal professionals that the everyday summary court processes may be too abrupt, abstract and impersonal. Reports and their associated processes pacify this unease in three ways. Firstly, reports display to legal professionals that defendants are treated individually, and with a degree of respect and humanity. Secondly, report processes (including their anticipation) assist the management of defendants and facilitate the production of guilty pleas. Thirdly, reports, generally (but by no means always), help to facilitate the ‘closure’ of guilty pleas. In these three ways, the ‘efficienct’ mass processing of defendants via guilty pleas is enabled by a sense among legal professionals of the individualised justice which reports seem to them to display.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-261
Number of pages23
JournalPunishment and Society
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2010


  • guilty pleas
  • mitigation
  • pre-sentence reports
  • punishment
  • sentencing
  • pre-sentence investigation
  • plea bargaining
  • penology
  • probation
  • criminal Justice
  • criminal justice social workers
  • defence lawyers
  • legal ethics

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