Remorse: What is it good for?

Sean Mullen is Revolving Doors’ Involvement Manager and a former magistrate. Kelly Grehan is our Policy Manager, and worked for 20 years as a probation officer. In our latest blog, they reflect on the meaning of remorse after speaking to our lived experience members following a consultation on the topic issued by the Sentencing Council: 

It’s common to hear judges say ‘you’ve shown no remorse’ or ‘I note your remorse.’ But what does feeling remorse really mean? And should it have any bearing in sentencing?  

At Revolving Doors, we have been thinking about this a lot recently. Recently, the Sentencing Council (which is responsible for developing guidelines around sentencing in England and Wales), held a consultation on mitigating factors in sentencing. One of the factors being considered was remorse and its place as a factor of mitigation.  

Remorse is defined as ‘a deep and poignant feeling of regret, guilt, or sorrow over a past action or decision. It involves a sense of moral anguish or self-reproach for having done something wrong or causing harm to oneself or others.’  

The consideration of remorse in sentencing can be a contentious topic within the legal system, and in society more broadly.  

Some argue that showing remorse can indicate a recognition of wrongdoing and a willingness to take responsibility for your actions, potentially showing a lower risk of reoffending. In these cases, taking remorse into account might lead to more lenient sentences or alternative forms of rehabilitation.  

However, others believe that remorse can be difficult to gauge and might be feigned or manipulated, potentially leading to inappropriately reduced sentences.  

We have both worked in Courts prior to taking up our roles at Revolving Doors. We’ve witnessed people sobbing in the dock, and people who have stood with their hands in their pockets, seemingly paying no attention to proceedings.  

The truth is, neither’s presentation gave any insight into their feelings about their offending. People cry out of shame, but also self-pity. People disengage from proceedings out of disregard, but also because of their mental state. 

In light of the Sentencing Council’s consultation, we held forums discussing remorse with our lived experience members and members of the National Experts Citizens Group. These have given us valuable insights into what it’s like to be the defendant in Court, whose emotional reaction – or lack thereof – may (or may not) swing a judge or magistrate’s sentencing decision.  

Some of our members have told us their shock at finding themselves in Court left them too numb to express any kind of feeling. Others told us they could not understand the proceedings well enough to engage with them, that their neurodiversity impacted their ability to express remorse. 

Others felt that offering contrition looked like they were making excuses and not taking responsibility. In other scenarios there appeared little point saying sorry when, given the same circumstances, they would repeat the crime, because it occurred due to poverty, addiction, or other unmet needs.  

We have heard of people coerced into offending by abusers; committing thefts due to poverty and needing to feed their kids, or even to get their kids things to take to school harvest festivals; or smashing windows during a mental health crisis in a desperate attempt to get treatment.  

Is their lack of remorse really indicative of poor character? More so than someone ‘sorry’ for a violent, planned offence?  

We believe remorse is an unreliable and potentially unjust criteria for sentencing and should be used with caution.  Instead of relying on remorse as a decisive element in sentencing, a more equitable approach involves prioritising evidence-based evaluations of an individual’s circumstances. Emphasising rehabilitation and addressing root causes of criminal behaviour could lead to more just and effective sentencing practices.

Ultimately, a shift towards understanding and addressing underlying issues might pave the way for a more equitable justice system. 

Sean Mullen is Involvement Manager at Revolving Doors and a former magistrate 

Kelly Grehan is Policy Manager at Revolving Doors and a former probation officer