LL284      Half Unit
Topics in Sentencing and Criminal Justice

This information is for the 2023/24 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Richard Martin


This course is available on the BA in Anthropology and Law and LLB in Laws. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is available to General Course students.

Course content

In this course we explore the routine practices and decision-making of key actors within the criminal justice system. In doing so, we examine the laws, policies and regulatory schemes that purport to govern how actors perform their specific roles in the criminal process. In the first five weeks, we track the construction of cases through the criminal process. This requires us to closely analyse the work of police, prosecutors and judges: How do they exercise their discretion? What kinds of dynamics, sub-cultures and formal (and informal) rules affect their decision-making? And how does this impact on the rights and interests of suspects, defendants, offenders and victims? In the second five weeks, we enter the realm of sentencing law and practice. We focus on how judges perform their role as sentencers, the principles and legal guidelines they rely upon and the types of sentences they can (or must) hand down in different types of cases. We use the sentencing of rioters and the life sentence for murder as case studies to apply the general principles of sentencing, then conclude the course by studying the impact of an offender’s race on sentencing practices. By preparing fully for seminars and actively contributing to our discussions, the course will equip you with the knowledge and tools necessary to critically assess contemporary criminal justice issues.

Course aims:

  • To explore with students the substance and modes of legal regulation, including human rights principles, that have come to govern the criminal justice system in the recent decades. 
  • To examine in detail the routine practices and decision-making that animates how power is wielded by key decision-makers in the criminal justice system, specifically police, prosecutors, and judges. 
  • To familiarise students with contemporary theories and principles that are used by scholars to critically analyse the criminal process and specific practices within it. 
  • To critically engage with empirical studies of the law-in-action, in addition to the case law analysis students will likely be familiar with from their LLB.

Topics by Week

1. The Criminal Justice System in England and Wales

2. In the Community: What Do Police Do and Why Do They Do It?

3. In the Station: Police Practices and Case Construction

4. The Charging Decision: Prosecutorial Discretion and Victims’ Rights

5. The Magistrates’ Courts and Legal Representation

6. Reading Week

7. Sentencing Rationales: Aims, Principles and Policies

8. Sentencing Practices: Discretion and Guidelines

9. Sentencing: Rioters

10. The Life Sentence for Murder

11. Race and Sentencing


This course runs in the Winter Term and will have a minimum of two hours of teaching content each week, in the form of a two hour seminar. This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of term. I will begin the seminar with some introductory remarks, outlining the topic or setting out its legal or political context. There are PowerPoint slides which will be uploaded on the Course’s Moodle webpage in advance of each seminar. We will work in and out of these slides during the seminar. Each seminar’s key learning outcomes can be found on the first PowerPoint slide; these outcomes will be reiterated at beginning of the seminar. It should go without saying that seminars are your opportunity to discuss, debate and reason with one another – it is essential you come to the seminar well-read and prepared to contribute to our discussions, whichever material you have chosen to read. Seminars include small group discussion and full seminar discussions; you should focus your seminar preparation on the discussion questions and be ready to share you answer in the seminar.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce a 1500-word literature review.

Indicative reading

There is textbook reading, the material and topics assigned are designed to be as contemporary and engaging as possible, so the course supplements these texts with more recent articles or chapters that are particularly helpful or insightful.

Sanders, Young and Burton’s Criminal Justice is a leading text: it is informative and officers sharp, critical analysis but can be a bit too basic in places.

The 5th edition of Campbell, Ashworth and Redmayne’s The Criminal Process (2019) is very good and can be accessed via OUP’s Law Trove.

The standard sentencing text for England and Wales is: Ashworth and Kelly (2022) Sentencing and Criminal Justice (7th ed., Hart) and S. Easton and C. Piper (2016) Sentencing and Punishment: The Quest for Justice (4th ed., Oxford: OUP) is also good.

Most of our readings are articles in journal e.g. British Journal of Criminology (BJ Crim), the Criminal Law Review (Crim LR) and the Journal of Law and Society (J. Law & Soc) and chapters in edited collection (various readings come from the sixth edition of the Oxford Handbook of Criminology).

The course is designed to give students the time, support and intellectual freedom to read and research issues for themselves.

The Summative Assessments, will after all, be testing students ability to read broadly, but purposefully, in order to critically evaluate a topic and advance a clear argument.


Exam (100%, duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes) in the spring exam period.

Key facts

Department: Law School

Total students 2022/23: 29

Average class size 2022/23: 30

Capped 2022/23: Yes (30)

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

  • Communication
  • Specialist skills