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Declared guilty, a never-ending story: an analysis of the impact of the criminal justice system upon the self

Steels, Brian (2005) Declared guilty, a never-ending story: an analysis of the impact of the criminal justice system upon the self. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This study explores the experience of people who have been publicly declared guilty. It retells the narratives of offenders from the point of arrest through to conviction and, where relevant, imprisonment and release. The experiences of close relatives are also explored and provide an important part of the thesis. These accounts are set against the institutional context of the criminal justice system and a systemic account of police, courts, prisons and community corrections is provided. The main aim of the study is to investigate and document the impact of the criminal justice process on offenders' sense of 'self'.

At a theoretical level, the study is informed by symbolic interactionism, particularly the work of Erving Goffman. This enables the development of insights into issues such as loss, shame, humiliation and loss of self. The asymmetrical power relationship in which these feelings are engendered and maintained is emphasised. At the same time, the study records the level and types of resistance among the subjects of the criminal justice system.

The findings are significant for our sociological understandings of the impact of being declared guilty, for they suggest that the criminal justice process per se contributes to a severely damaged self, and that the subjective experience of 'being found guilty' starts at the moment of arrest and persists well after sentencing as subjects try to re-integrate into the community with a record of conviction.

The study also suggests that these processes are not passively absorbed by subjects. As well as describing feelings of shame and loss, those participating in the research talked about the unfairness of the system, their preparedness to resist in numerous ways, and of their longing for an older, better life in which their sense of self was undamaged.

The study concludes by arguing that profound change to the culture of the criminal justice system is needed if rehabilitation is to be successful. In this context it emphasises the importance of accountable and transparent human services concerned with the human and civil rights of offenders, court diversion schemes, alternatives to custody, and the practical application of restorative and therapeutic justice.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): Harris, Patricia
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