Book review: Sentencing: A Social Process Re-thinking Research and Policy

Date01 June 2021
Published date01 June 2021
AuthorNiamh Maguire
Subject MatterBook reviews
Sentencing: A Social Process Re-thinking Research and
Cyrus Tata
Palgrave Pivot; 2020, pp. 177; £44.99; hbk
ISBN: 978-3-030-01059-1
Reviewed by: Niamh Maguire, Waterford Institute of Technology,
Cyrus Tata’s Sentencing: A Social Process Re-thinking Research and Policy, offers a
convincing critique of contemporary sentencing research and policy literatures.
Eloquently and eruditely written over seven chapters, Tata’s book lucidly diagnoses
the main problem with contemporary sentencing research and policy literature: the
dominance of normative debates about how much or how little discretion judges
should possess, and the relative neglect of arguably more important topics, such as
understanding how sentencing actually happens in practice.
The reform agenda, he argues, is propagated by the work of two different,
normatively opposed camps: the legal-rational tradition and the judicial defensive
tradition. While one argues in favour of structuring discretion, and the other
against, they both share the same ‘sentencing cosmos’ or world view of sentencing
which is heavily reliant on the concept of autonomous individualism (pp. 24–25).
Tata describes autonomous individualism as a key cultural and ideological trope of
western liberalism that divides people and things into ‘separate, individual, self-
contained entities’ (pp. 25–26), often depicting them as ‘existing in a series of
binary duels’ such as facts versus law, rules versus discretion etc. (p. 26). Autono-
mous individualism within the context of sentencing conceives of decision-making as
‘an aggregate of more or less autonomous individual elements’, such as ‘facts,
mitigating factors, aggravating factors’. Tata critiques this approach for its
‘mechanistic view of human behaviour’; its tendency to employ ‘static dichotomies’;
and, for its view of human action as being determined by a ‘constellation of indi-
vidual forces’ which themselves are ‘unchanged by their collision and interaction’
(p. 67).
Sentencing: A Social Process convincingly challenges the dominance of the
reform agenda in sentencing and offers a valuable reconceptualization of senten-
cing as a social, relational and collaborative practice shaped by three core char-
acteristics: sentencing is interpretive, processual and performative. Sentencing is
conceived as a socially constructed, interpretive practice where meaning is nego-
tiated collaboratively through the work of sentencing professionals. Case facts, for
example, do not possess an objective form but are instead socially constructed,
dynamic and negotiated throughout the process. The idea that sentencing decisions
are socially constructed and not inevitable represents a challenge to the legitimacy
of juridical field because it raises the spectre of the need to justify the decisions that
are made daily in our courts. This lifting of the juridical veil potentially gives rise to
deeper questions about the lack of social and distributive justice inherent in
284 Probation Journal 68(2)

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