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Courts and Sentencing


Entry requirements

Students who want to take this course need to be admitted to the master’s programme in Criminal Justice.

Course description

“The sentencing decision is the symbolic keystone of the criminal justice system: in it, the conflicts between the goals of equal justice under the law and individualized justice with punishment tailored to the offender are played out, and society’s moral principles and highest values – life and liberty – are interpreted and applied” (A. Blumstein, J. Cohen, S. Martin & M. Tonry (eds.) (1983) Research on Sentencing: The search for reform. Washington: National Academy Press)

The sentencing decision of the judge may be the most important decision in the criminal justice process. For this is where the decision is made on the consequences of the offense for the offender. Moreover, the public relies heavily on the imposed sentences to form its opinion on the performance of the judiciary. That makes sentencing not only relevant because of the impact the punishment has on the offender, it is also an important cornerstone of the legitimacy of the entire criminal justice system.

Drawing on interdisciplinary perspectives, this course examines the empirical study of sentencing, its processes and outcomes. In particular, this course explores how we understand the exercise of judicial discretion in the criminal courts, and how we assess the fairness of the sentencing process and outcomes.

This course will examine sentencing processes and outcomes from international and historical perspectives, from the viewpoint of legal sentencing structures, from theoretical and policy perspectives, and with close attention to many problem-specific areas. Moreover, recent developments in sentencing law and practice will be discussed, thereby offering you a state-of-the-art insight into converging and diverging trends in sentencing within an international context.

Topics that you will be invited to explore include: the organization of courts, wrongful convictions, legitimacy of sentencing, sentencing theories and their application, and risk-based sentencing. These topics will be considered as they play out in current political and policy debates.
Basic elements of the Criminal Justice curriculum will be integrated in the current course. The matter will not only be approached from a legal point of view, but also from criminological and psychological perspectives. Methodology and statistics of criminological research will be critically discussed during the lectures when research findings are presented.

Course objectives

The objective of the course ‘Courts & Sentencing’ is to familiarize students with the role that criminal courts play in punishing offenders in different contexts, to provide understanding of sentencing theory, decision-making and research outcomes and to make them think critically about issues regarding the legitimacy of sentencing.

Upon completing this course, students will be able to:

  • Understand how the organization and legal context of courts relate to sentencing outcomes

  • Understand the legal and psychological pitfalls for the judiciary when deciding on guilt and reflect upon the consequences of wrongful convictions for the legitimacy of the criminal justice system

  • Evaluate the legitimacy of sentencing and sentencing factors by applying moral justifications theories of sentencing and rule of law perspectives, and discuss the role of the public opinion on sentencing in relation to the legitimacy of sentencing.

  • Evaluate and compare the state of the art in scientific theories and results of empirical studies discussed during this course concerning sentencing and sentencing disparity.

  • Apply the above mentioned knowledge in different contexts when developing policies for sentencing reform.


Choose bachelor or master.

Mode of instruction

The course consists of a weekly lecture and a weekly seminar. You are expected to prepare for the lectures by reading the literature assigned. During the seminars every student gives one presentation together with another student on a topic provided. Further, during every seminar a group assignment will be made. Every week, a short (2-3 pages) individual paper is to be written. Together these form the portfolio.

Week 1: Organisation of courts in comparative perspective
Week 2: The decision on guilt and wrongful convictions
Week 3: Sentencing disparity: occurrence and measures
Week 4: Risk-based sentencing
Week 5: Public opinion on sentencing


  • One presentation on a topic provided

  • Weekly group assignments during class

  • 5 individual mini-papers about the group assignments which form the portfolio.

Assessment method

  • One presentation on a topic provided

  • Weekly group assignments during class

  • 5 individual mini-papers about the group assignments which form the portfolio.

Assessment method

  • A portfolio consisting of the individual mini-papers

  • Final written examination with open questions

Course grades are determined by

  • Portfolio (partial exam: 30%)

  • Written examination with open questions (final exam: 70%)

  • All components should be at least 5,5 in order to complete the course successfully. If this is not the case, the lowest partial grade will be registered as final grade.

  • There will be a retake for both the written examination and the portfolio.

  • Depending on the number of participants, the course coordinator can decide that the retake for the written examination will be an oral examination. In that case, you will be timely notified.

  • The partial exams that have been finished with a passing grade, will be valid up to and including the academic year following the year in which the grade has been achieved. To this there is one exception: when the learning objectives, content, design or examination of a course has been changed, the course coordinator can decide that the validity of the partial exam concerned has expired due to didactic reasons. This will be stated in the course description of the academic year in which the change(s) will be implemented.

Procedure for handing in the assignments

  • All assignments must be submitted via SafeAssign (Blackboard).

Employability and (academic) careerPreparation for the labor market

Participants train their skills in analyzing data, presenting their research outcomes, debating, and developing criminal justice policies.


The use of Blackboard is required.

Reading list

Mandatory literature

  • Assigned literature and the course guideline, both of which will be published on Blackboard.


Students can enroll for this course via uSis


  • Coordinator: mw. dr. mr. S.G.C. van Wingerden

  • Availability: Monday till Thursday, through the secretariat

  • Telephone: 071 – 527 74 62

  • E-mail:


  • Institute: Criminal Law and Criminology

  • Department: Criminology

  • Opening hours: 09.00 to 12.30

  • Telephone secretariat: 071 – 527 74 62

  • Room number: B3.11

  • E-mail: