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Encounters of a Different Kind: Social Enquiry and Sentencing in Belgium

NCJ Number
Punishment and Society Volume: 12 Issue: 3 Dated: July 2010 Pages: 309-328
Kristel Beyens; Veerle Scheirs
Date Published
July 2010
20 pages
This study examined sentencing judges and justice assistants (report writers) in relation to social reports and punishment.
This article draws on the results of multi-method research studying the discourse of Belgian sentencing judges and report writers in relation to the use and evaluation of social reports. To understand the Belgian context, the legal framework and its underlying assumptions, as well as the institutional and cultural background to the use and evaluation of social reports, are explained. Social reports focus on the social background of the offender. Their production is embedded in a rehabilitative framework of supervision and guidance which prioritizes community-based sanctions, but which does not fit very well with judges' neo-classical approach to sentencing. The author's analysis suggests that the relatively marginal use of social reports in sentencing is an illustration of judges' professional ownership of 'their' decision, and adherence to their own penal culture. Judges base their decisionmaking on an official legal dossier which contains many different 'voices', both judicial and non-judicial. Compared to other documents, such as 'moral' reports by the police for example, social narratives are accorded less authority. As for the international penological debate on changing penality, the authors see little evidence of actuarial risk-based practices in the sentencing phase. Social reports are still requested and constructed within an individualizing needs-based approach. On the other hand, although the Belgian picture is changing and heterogeneous, the authors can see that new public management techniques are beginning to find their way into the Belgian criminal justice system, paving the way for a more managerial approach to the implementation of community-based sanctions. Notes and references (Published Abstract)