Offenders' Perceptions of the Sentencing Process: A Study of Deterrence and Stigmatisation in the New South Wales Children's Court

AuthorAndrew McGrath
Published date01 April 2009
Date01 April 2009
Subject MatterArticles
VOLUME 42 NUMBER 1 2009 PP. 24–46
Address for correspondence: Dr Andrew McGrath, School of Social Sciences and Liberal
Studies, Charles Sturt University, Panorama Avenue, Bathurst 2795, Australia. E-mail:
Offenders’ Perceptions of the Sentencing
Process: A Study of Deterrence and
Stigmatisation in the New South Wales
Childrens Court
Andrew McGrath
Charles Sturt University, Australia
The criminal court system remains society’s pre-eminent response to
criminal activity, despite recent innovations such as youth justice
conferences. Little is known, however, about the impact of an appearance
before court and, in particular, whether subjective reactions to the court
process have any impact on recidivism. The current article reports the
results of a longitudinal study conducted in the New South Wales (NSW)
Children’s Court. Two hundred and six young offenders were interviewed
immediately after the conclusion of their sentencing hearing using a
questionnaire designed to measure the extent to which they perceived
the court hearing to be a deterrent, and the extent to which they felt
either stigmatised or reintegrated by the experience of being sentenced.
Other factors measured included the developmental background of the
young person, their academic record, peer influence, and licit and illicit
drug use. Participants with previous convictions and who felt stigmatised
by the hearing were more likely to reoffend, while participants rating
their likelihood of arrest in the event of future offending as high, and who
reported that the sentence they received would prevent future offending,
were less likely to reoffend. Some evidence was obtained, therefore, to
support both deterrence and labelling theory.
Keywords: juvenile delinquency, recidivism, juvenile court
An appearance before court remains society’s preeminent response to criminal activ-
ity, regardless of the recent emergence of alternatives such as youth justice confer-
ences (Chan, Bargen, Luke, & Clancey, 2004; Luke & Lind, 2002). Large numbers of
people continue to be dealt with by the criminal courts every year. In 2005, for
instance, there were 139,407 people dealt with by the New South Wales (NSW)
Local Court, while 8,428 young people were dealt with by the NSW Children’s Court
(NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 2006). What impact such contact
with the criminal justice system has is a matter of some controversy.
It is clear what effect an appearance before court should have: it should deter
future offending. However, it has also been suggested that court can have the
counterproductive effect of increasing future offending, by labelling the defendant
as deviant (H.S. Becker, 1966; Braithwaite, 1989; Lemert, 1972). It is also possible
that court has little or no effect, and that any subsequent criminal activity by the
sanctioned offender is determined by factors that precede the age of criminal
These competing claims offer little assistance to either policy makers or
researchers. The aim of the current research project is therefore twofold: firstly, to
determine what impact, if any, an appearance before the criminal court has; and
secondly, to test the relative merits of predictions made by deterrence and labelling
theorists as explanatory accounts of offending subsequent to the court hearing.
Specifically, the present article will report the results of a longitudinal study examin-
ing subjective reactions to an appearance before the NSW Children’s Court, and the
extent to which variations in these reactions predict recidivism in the sample.
Deterrence Theory
There has been a longstanding interest in deterrence theory and research in criminol-
ogy (Beccaria, 1764/1995; Bentham, 1823/1948; Gibbs, 1975; Zimring & Hawkins,
1973). In the immediate aftermath of the revival of interest in deterrence theory in
the 1960s, research focused on the aggregate effect of sanctions on crime rates (G. S.
Becker, 1968; Tittle, 1969). Since then, there has been recognition that deterrence is
as much a psychological as sociological phenomenon, and research has concentrated
on investigating the relationship between individual perceptions of both sanction
risk and severity, and criminal involvement (Grasmick & Bryjak, 1980; Paternoster,
1987; Paternoster, Saltzman, Waldo, & Chiricos, 1983b; Saltzman, Paternoster,
Waldo, & Chiricos, 1982; Waldo & Chiricos, 1972).
Two conclusions follow from a review of this literature: firstly, there is general
agreement that the operation of the criminal justice system is a deterrent to criminal
activity (Blumstein, Cohen, & Nagin, 1978; Cook, 1980; Nagin, 1998); and secondly,
the evidence favours the deterrent effect of certainty, over severity, of punishment
(Nagin, 1998; Von Hirsch, Bottoms, Burney, & Wikstrom, 1999; Williams &
Hawkins, 1986).
Nevertheless, it is clear that much remains unknown about how the deterrence
process operates. One reason for this is that empirical tests of the hypothesis that
contact with the criminal justice system reduces subsequent criminal activity by the
sanctioned offender have been marred by a number of methodological flaws. In
particular, there has been controversy relating to five areas: research design,
measurement of the dependent and independent variables, control for exogenous
variance and sample composition.
Research Design
There has been ongoing debate regarding the best way to test the perceptual deter-
rence thesis. Use of cross-sectional methodology led to the suspicion that negative

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