Understanding penal decision-making: courts, sentencing and parole

Nicky Padfield, Cyrus Tata

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


This chapter examines the knowledge gained from research over the last sixty or more years into sentencing and parole decision-making. Our focus is not on the highest profile nor gravest offences, nor the anatomy of institutions and procedures. Instead, we examine key issues in the daily realities of the work of sentencing and parole, and their implications for research and policy. The central concept of the chapter is that decision-making is a ‘process’ rather than a momentary formal act. We begin the chapter with some core definitions, and an overview of how cases flow through the criminal justice system, as context. This is followed by an explanation of the six essential features of ‘process’. We then examine how the findings from research challenge five assumptions, prevalent in both professional and popular discourse, about penal decision-making. These assumptions that we challenge are: that the presumption of innocence is paramount; cases are judged as unique; criminal justice agencies work autonomously in penal decision-making; strategies to reduce the use of imprisonment should rely on promoting alternatives to imprisonment; and that sentencing is a one-off event. Because there is so much still to discover, we conclude the chapter by offering an agenda for future researchers to pursue.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Criminology
EditorsAlison Liebling, Shadd Maruna, Lesley McAra
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9780198860914
Publication statusPublished - 21 Sept 2023


  • sentencing
  • courts
  • parole
  • punishment
  • penal decision-making
  • criminal justice
  • research
  • policy
  • innocence
  • community alternatives
  • imprisonment


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