Remorse and Criminal Justice

From Emotion Review

Legal decision-makers tend to believe they know remorse when they see it. A defendant’s failure to show remorse is one of the most powerful influences on criminal sentencing, including capital sentencing. Unfortunately, there is currently no good evidence that the criminal justice system can accurately evaluate remorse. In particular, there is no evidence that a defendant’s remorse can be accurately evaluated by observing his facial expressions and body language in a courtroom, yet capital juries routinely rely on these observations when sentencing defendants to death. Judges and juries also believe that a defendant’s remorse predicts future law abiding behavior, but this intuition too is unsupported by the current evidence. In short, there is an urgent need for more information about the dynamics of evaluating remorse. Ultimately, if remorse cannot be accurately evaluated, the legal system must find ways to limit or guide its use. This article reviews the current state of knowledge, identifies areas for further study, and recommends reforms. Read more…


A defendant’s failure to show remorse is one of the most powerful factors in criminal sentencing, including capital sentencing. Yet there is currently no evidence that remorse can be accurately evaluated in a courtroom. Conversely there is evidence that race and other impermissible factors create hurdles to evaluating remorse. There is thus an urgent need for studies about whether and how remorse can be accurately evaluated. Moreover, there is little evidence that remorse is correlated with future law-abiding behavior or other legitimate penal purposes, and, moreover, there is evidence that remorse is often conflated with shame, which is correlated with increased future criminality. More accurate information on the nature and evaluation of remorse can be used to reform the criminal justice system

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Susan A. Bandes
Remorse and Criminal Justice
Emotion Review 1754073915601222, first published on October 23, 2015 doi:10.1177/1754073915601222

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