The relationship between a Schneider-based measure of remorse and chronic offending in a sample of incarcerated young offenders.

Author:Corrado, Raymond R.


In the jurisprudence of the youth and adult criminal justice systems of most liberal, democratic states, remorse or related constructs such as regret, sadness, sorrow, self-incrimination, and shame exhibited by offenders regarding their offences has had mitigating consequences (Weijers and Duff 2002). Remorse also has been associated with offenders' willingness to change, to be rehabilitated, and to be pro-socially reintegrated into their societies, thereby decreasing their likelihood of recidivating (Hayes and Daly 2003; Maxwell and Morris 2001; Schneider 1990). Arguably, therefore, this and the above related concepts are embedded in not only the philosophy and the various decision-making sections of the Canadian Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), but also the related provincial/territorial youth justice laws and procedures. In 2012, the Canadian Parliament made several amendments to the YCJA through the Safe Streets and Communities Act. This new Act strengthens protection of the public as a primary goal of the YCJA and introduces denunciation and specific deterrence as principles of sentencing, provisions that are expected to lead to harsher sentences for violent and chronic offenders. Proponents of these reforms have argued that, under the current Act, the youth court is too limited to sentence appropriately those offenders "who demonstrate a lack of remorse or empathy" (Department of Justice Canada 2011). Yet, there is very limited research, in Canada or elsewhere, concerning the relationship between serious violent offenders and youth custody sentences, on the one hand, and remorse or related concepts, on the other.

This study explores several theoretical assertions concerning the concept of remorse (2) and types of offending in a large sample of incarcerated serious and violent young offenders in Canada. Specifically, were youths who expressed higher levels of remorse about their current offence more likely to have been, first, a chronic young offender than a non-chronic young offender, and second, a chronic serious violent young offender than a chronic non-serious violent young offender? And, finally, did such relationships persist once certain key risk factors associated with chronic serious offending were added, including ethnicity, negative family experiences, school problems, and abuse victimizations?

Types of remorse

Remorse is a complex response expressed by individuals who have engaged in harmful acts. In the context of criminal justice, taking responsibility for one's offences has been asserted as a primary step in expressing remorse (Fisher and Exline 2006; Weisman 2009). Generally, though, remorse has been hypothesized to be dependent on several characteristics of the individual and of the context in which s/he acted: the presence or absence of an empathetic personality (Benda and DiBlasio 1994; Farrington 2000; Salekin and Lynam 2010; Saltaris 2002); the individual's temperament (Kagan 1994; Kagan 2010); the contexts in which the harmful act took place--that is, reactive versus instrumental (Christianson, Freij, and Vogelsang 2007; Glenn and Raine 2009); and the individual's learned responses to such contexts, which are generally based on family, peers, school, neighbourhood, or culture/ sub-culture (Hagell 2003). Conceptually, remorse has also been associated or even considered synonymous with feelings of regret, shame, and guilt. Prudential regret, for example, is a construct closely related to criminal offenders, primarily because it is focused on the negative consequences of having been caught rather than on the harm caused (Proeve and Tudor 2010). Proeve and Tudor (2010) assert that prudential regret is common among criminal offenders.

Although it is difficult to distinguish these closely related concepts, there is a considerable history concerning the concept of remorse in criminal justice, though far fewer attempts have been made to operationalize it or assess its theoretical or policy relevance in this context. Proeve and Tudor (2010) recently reviewed the concept of remorse and emphasized its essential emotional dimension, the wide range of uses of the terra and of related constructs such as regret and guilt, and the various theories of remorse. They concluded that remorse was important in criminal justice decision making at various junctures, especially as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

Several studies have assessed the relationship between remorse and forms of negative conduct; however, few studies have examined remorse in incarcerated criminal offenders, generally, and incarcerated young offenders, specifically (Fisher and Exline 2006; Jehle, Miller, and Kemmelmeier 2009; Proeve and Howells 2006; Proeve and Tudor 2010; Weisman 2009). There have been even fewer studies that employed specific measures of remorse such as Schneider's (1990) measures in her seminal study of incarcerated older adolescents and young adults.

Remorse and youth criminal justice system decision making

Typically, remorse is an important mitigating factor at several critical decision-making junctions regarding admitted or convicted minor, moderate, and serious offences of young offenders in the youth justice system under the complex YCJA (Corrado, Gronsdahl, MacAlister, and Cohen 2006; Proeve and Tudor 2010). For example, police and probation officers are mandated to consider alternative measures (diversion) for minor offences, and expressions of remorse likely influence the specific alternative measure selected; Crown prosecutors and youth court judges not uncommonly consider remorse as a mitigating factor in resorting to both alternative sanctions for moderate offences and less lengthy custodial sentences for serious offences (Corrado, Gronsdahl, MacAlister, and Cohen 2010). Regarding admissions of guilt and convictions for more serious offences, a pre-sentence report prepared by a probation officer for a youth court judge's consideration "addresses the question of why the individual has offended and their prospects for modifying their behaviour in the future, focusing on the attitude of the offender to the offence" (Tata, Halliday, Hutton, and McNeill 2007: 13). Pre-sentence reports are designed to provide judges with insight into young offenders' acceptance of responsibility and remorse for the harm done to their victims. There also is the likely assumption by judges that young offenders who recognize their acts as harmful to others possess some degree of self-discipline, which is seen as a necessary component of avoiding future serious criminality (Ashworth 2005; Cole and Angus 2003; Schneider 1990; Weijers and Duff 2002).

Even before denunciation and specific deterrence were added as sentencing principles under the Safe Streets and Communities Act, arguably, Canadian youth court judges considered the future protection of society as an important consideration in sentencing, and again, remorse was likely seen as a factor, at least implicitly, that supported this sentencing objective (Bonta, Bourgon, Jesseman, and Yessine 2005; Pogrebin 2003). Remorse is more explicitly associated with the YCJA principle of accountability and (as discussed previously) is evident in pre-sentence reports (Corrado et al. 2006). However, with the implementation of the Safe Streets and Communities Act, deterrence to the individual and denunciation have become sentencing principles.

Criminological theory that explains low remorse in terms of the psychological process whereby offenders neutralize possible responses to the emotions of their victims by attributing responsibility to the victims themselves on the basis of stereotypes (e.g., retribution, revenge, perceived insults, racism, sexism, sexual preference, and, in general, "they were asking for it") has an extensive history (Helfgott 2008; Sykes and Matza 1957; Yochelson and Samenow 1977). Attribution theory has been a central explanation of the role of low remorse in both sentencing and reoffending. Fritz Heider (1958) pioneered attribution theory based on the concept that individuals inherently attempt to develop explanations for their behaviours and that, for negative behaviours, they commonly attribute the cause to others. He asserted further that once such attributions are developed, they typically are predictive of future behaviours. However, there is little research on this or other theories of remorse among serious and violent offenders and in youth justice generally, and no research has been done in Canada (Stams, Dekovic, Brugman, Rutten, Van den Wittenboer, Tavecchio, Hendriks, and Van Schijndel 2008). The few studies that have explored offenders' remorse have focused on their lack of personal acknowledgement of responsibility for the offence(s), which has been theorized to be based primarily on the relationship between offender personality characteristics, such as callous or unemotional, and subsequent attribution of responsibility for offending behaviour to the victims. Gudjonsson (1984), for example, maintained that offenders who felt low remorse typically blamed their victims in order to maintain their self-confidence and to reduce their sense of guilt. Shine (1997) provided an additional explanation for low remorse--lack of self-control.

Lack of remorse has been central to research involving psychopathy and serious offending, originally in adults, but more recently involving adolescents (Farrington 2000; Salekin and Lynam 2010; Saltaris 2002). Remorse and psychopathy among adult sex offenders, in particular, have been the extensive focus of much of the research. In 2010, two adolescents in British Columbia pleaded guilty to a gruesome sexual assault and torture killing of a teenage student/friend whose body was set on fire, while admitting no remorse subsequently ("Teens plead guilty to murder" 2010). However, such notorious cases involving apparent or diagnosed adolescent psychopaths are rare; therefore, they are exceptions...

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