Locating the ideal defendant: punishment, violence and legitimacy

Stewart Field , Cyrus Tata

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This chapter outlines the central propositions of this book as a whole by drawing on its component chapters. In a nutshell, the book demonstrates that, within a variety of criminal justice systems, an implicit model of the ‘ideal defendant’ is at work. There is an expectation that defendants (by which we mean anyone proceeded against by the state) should display certain characteristics. This model of the ideal defendant is based on individual character, and on attitudes towards the state, the alleged offence and likely future offending. A key component of these norms is that defendants are expected to demonstrate a free and sincere acceptance of their personal responsibility for the offending. Ideally, this admission of responsibility should be so wholehearted that defendants can be seen as expressing ‘genuine’ remorse. While this is the ultimate ideal and defendants’ representations typically fall short of this, they are nonetheless encouraged to align themselves as closely as possible to that ideal. These expectations of defendants are brought home to them at all stages of their journey through the system not just by judges and prosecutors, but also by lawyers, probation officers and therapeutic professionals (eg psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers). Defendants are evaluated on the extent to which they perform in accordance with the ideal. This ‘grading’ of defendant emotion and its expression has consequences – whether negative or positive – for the subsequent state penal response to the defendant. In practice, encouragement and evaluation mesh so that expressions of remorse-like feelings and responsibility are constructed through interactions between defendant and criminal justice practitioners. This ‘making’ of remorse and responsibility is fraught with cultural misinterpretations and unrealistic expectations of particular defendants. Yet, the public acknowledgement by defendants of the legitimacy of their own punishment serves a latent function: it reassures practitioners that the routine coercion of their systemic practices does not represent injustice. It also enables the enactment of an apparent mutuality between state and citizen at a moment of rupture in that relationship.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCriminal Justice and the Ideal Defendant in the Making of Remorse and Responsibility
EditorsStewart Field, Cyrus Tata
Place of PublicationOxford
Number of pages25
ISBN (Electronic)9781509939930, 9781509939923, 9781509939947
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2023

Publication series

NameOñati International Series in Law and Society


  • sentencing
  • punishment
  • comparative criminal justice
  • defendant
  • guilty pleas


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