At the heart of sentencing: Exploring whether more compassionate sentencing narratives reduce public punitiveness

Associate Professor Anthony Hopkins2, Dr  Shannon Dodd3, Professor Mark Nolan1,2, Professor Lorana Bartels2

1Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, Australia, 2The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, 3University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

Compassion has the capacity to change how we think and feel about offenders, enabling us to understand individual and systemic causes of criminality and consider whether, and in what circumstances, desistance is possible. This has clear implications for actors within the criminal justice system, such as sentencing judges. However, compassion may also have a larger role to play in reorienting criminal justice law reform from its increasingly punitive trajectory. This raises the question of whether, and in what ways, compassion can be cultivated within the broader public. Using an experimental design, our research examined whether the use of a more compassionate narrative about an offender in both written and audio-visual sentencing remarks stimulated a less punitive response from members of the Australian public. Our results support the conclusion that it is possible to alter the features of a written or orally delivered sentence so that it is recognisably more compassionate, and that compassion- enhanced sentencing remarks have the capacity to increase the public’s willingness to recognise the suffering of offenders. Further, results showed that engagement with compassion- enhanced sentencing remarks altered criminal justice spending preferences, reducing the proportion of the criminal justice budget that members of the public believed should be spent on imprisonment.


Professor Mark Nolan is an interdisciplinary scholar who was appointed Director of the Centre for Law and Justice at Charles Sturt University in 2020, with its LLB and criminal justice degree programs, and remains an Honorary Professor at the ANU College of Law where he worked since 2002. Mark has undergraduate, honours and PhD qualifications in Psychology, a law degree, and, a Masters of Asia Pacific Studies.  Mark is Editor-in-Chief of the ANZAPPL journal Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, co-author of the interdisciplinary monograph Legal Psychology in Australia, and, beyond his university teaching of legal psychology, criminal law, and military discipline law, has assisted the National Judicial College of Australia in conference organisation and judicial education programs and was recently awarded Life Membership by that College. Mark has previously held ANZAPPL positions as Secretary as well as President of the ACT Branch.

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