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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF JUDICIAL SENTENCING

Author: Anshika Srivastava, I year of B.A.,LL.B.(Hons.) from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala


Judges are powerful leaders. We are all impacted by their actions, whether directly or indirectly.However, the majority of us have rarely considered how judges handle the peculiar task ofconverting their dislike of offenders into years, pounds, or hours of punishment. The psychologyof judicial sentencing raises several unanswered problems, such as why no judge has everimposed a five-month term of imprisonment. Why don’t judges raise concerns about remissionand parole, which can lower sentences by as much as two-thirds? Why, in the face of all theevidence to the contrary, do they still hold such a strong belief in thedistinctive effects of theirsentences? We will discuss the psychology of judgment errors in this blog, as well as the beliefthat judges accurately reflect the opinion of the people, the psychology of presentingexplanations, and the challenging task of translating a perception of an offence and offendersinto the “correct punishment”.


If hundreds of criminal court judges were asked what aspect of their work they found the mostchallenging, the overwhelming majority would very definitely respond, “Sentencing”.No otherjudicial duty leaves the judge more isolated, and no other decision he makes has more potentialfor good or bad than deciding how society will handle its violators.[i]The psychology and math ofprison terms are among the special themes, along with mitigation and sentencing discrepancy.The process of court sentencing involves human judgment and decision-making, with all of itsdrawbacks and restrictions. Explaining this procedure and its results requires a close look at howjudges compile, analyse, and use information regarding criminals.[ii]


The necessity for regulation of the criminal justice system across every nation is urgent given theworrisome rise in crime rates in today’s world. Today, crime and punishment make up a highlyimportant and delicate component of society; they can no longer be controlled by traditionsandestablished precedents. It is necessary to implement a fixed regime and to minimize thesubjective component as much as feasible. However, it cannot be forgotten that the accused maynot receive any specific sanctions since they are too harsh and unaware of their rights. Beforecreating a punishment strategy, it is necessary to strike an equilibrium between the interests ofthe two victims. The criminal conviction and the society will both influence the type ofpunishment administered. Some communities only care about the victim, but others care moreabout rehabilitating the offender than about punishing them. The sentencing guidelines show the society’s level of judgment and justification for a certain offence. A judge will determine theappropriate sentence at the sentencing stage of a criminal proceeding when a criminal defendantis found guilty or enters a plea of guilt. Depending on the offence and the prisoner, the court mayin some cases be able to increase or decrease a sentence. Fines, imprisonment, probation, asuspended sentence, community work, restitution, and engagement in rehabilitation programs areall possible punishments.[iii]


Although judges do have the last say in penalties, they are limited in what they canaccomplishby the statutes and sentencing guidelines that are in place in each state. Since the late 1970s,judicial discretion has been constrained by the creation of sentencing laws and other methods forstructuring the sentence decision. Others argue that additional measures, such as mandatoryminimum sentencing restrictions, are necessary to further restrict judicial discretion, while someclaim that these arrangements excessively restrict a judge’s capacity to take all pertinent factorsinto account before rendering a decision.[iv]It is important to recognize that the focus on judicialsentencing is a result of a major shift in sentencing theories. In the 1970s, a regime of “indeterminate punishment” was replaced by one based on the principle of “fair deserts”. Twokey elements were integrated with indeterminate sentencing. First, with the exception oflegislatively mandated maximums and (less frequently) minimums, judicial authority insentencing was broad and usually uncontrolled. Second, the actual amount of time that offendersspent in custody was determined by the release decisions made by state parole boards, whichwere appointed by the governor, and who were matched with the judicial decisions concerningsentence duration.

Although Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines accept the concept of just deserts, “attorneys as wellas trial judges remain strongly connected to offender-based crime control punishment goals” andthe application of judicial discretion has progressively grown. Some of the movement’s mostprominent proponents claimed that one of the movement’s main objectives was to improvejudicial discretion by restricting the “back end” jurisdiction of parole boards. They also point outthe particular accountability that judges have for their sentence judgments.[v]


Since each offender is now seen as an individual, the sentencing judge asks the offender why hedid the crime and what the likelihood is that he may repeat it again. The judge’s main goal is totreat rather than punish. Numerous new issues have arisen as a result of the emphasis placed ontreating the individual. Judges must consider an overwhelming number of factors in order todetermine the appropriate course of action for specific inmates. I think that every sentence’s mainobjective should be to deter future criminality.[vi]There isn’t much that can be done to undo theharm done in the past, and a sentence would succeed in its goal if it respects the rule of law,deters those who might be tempted to conduct similar crimes, and results in the offender’srehabilitation so that he won’t break the law again. The judge must be as informed as possibleabout the prisoner who is in front of him. He should understand how the convict is likely torespond to incarceration or probation as well as the expected implications of penalties onindividuals who could conduct similar offences. He is well aware that, in many circumstances, ajail sentence not only shortens the lifespan of the inmate but also taints the lives of uninvolvedfamily members. Every judge is keenly aware of the potential impact fatherlessness may have ona prisoner’s son after five years.


However, society must be safeguarded, a criminal activity must be discouraged, violentoffenders must be isolated, and convicts must be reformatted. The optimal sentence to achievethese goals must be chosen by someone. The judge is responsible for this responsibility in federalcourts, although the person who is convicted would face the same issues regardless of hisposition.

[i]Aharoni E and others, “Nudges for Judges: An Experiment on the Effect of Making Sentencing Costs Explicit” (Frontiers, January 1, 2001) <https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.889933/full> accessed November 5, 2022. [ii]Lurigio AJ, Carroll JS and Stalans LJ, “Understanding Judges’ Sentencing Decisions” (Understanding Judges’ Sentencing Decisions | SpringerLink) <https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4757-9238-6_6> accessed November 5, 2022. [iii]Sharma D and others, “Criminal Psychology and Its Importance in Criminal Trials -- Is It Time to Revisit the Pigeon Hole? | SCC Blog” (SCC Blog, July 1, 2020) <https://www.scconline.com/blog/post/2020/07/01/criminal-psychology-and-its-importance-in-criminal-trials-is-it-time-to-revisit-the-pigeon-hole/> accessed November 5, 2022. [iv]Mishra Y, “The Exigency Of Sentencing Guidelines In Indian Criminal Justice Administration” (The Exigency Of Sentencing Guidelines In Indian Criminal Justice Administration, May 20, 2022) <https://www.livelaw.in/columns/criminal-justice-administration-indian-penal-code-sentencing-guidelines-offence-199629> accessed November 5, 2022. [v]“Sentencing” (Sentencing) <https://www.americanbar.org/groups/criminal_justice/publications/criminal_justice_section_archive/crimjust_standards_sentencing_blk/> accessed November 5, 2022. [vi]“Sentencing - Courts and Tribunals Judiciary” (Courts and Tribunals Judiciary) <https://www.judiciary.uk/how-the-law-works/sentencing-2/> accessed November 5, 2022.

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