Shadd Maruna and Ana King On How Belief in Redeemability Informs Public Punitive Attitudes

Annotating Criminology
4 min readJan 10, 2021


Shadd Maruna

In Once a Criminal, Always a Criminal, Shadd Maruna and Ana King make an argument for the importance of analysing ‘belief in redeemability of offenders’ in research assessing public punitive attitudes. They submit that criminological research needs to incorporate the developments in attribution theory while attempting to understand public views regarding penal practices.

Drawing on survey data collected as part of the Cambridge University Public Opinion Project (CUPOP), Maruna and King explore the relationship between ‘belief in redeemability’ and punitiveness:

‘In this study, we explore one of the most important dimensions identified in attribution research: stability/instability. This measure asks how permanent or transient members of the public feel the causes of criminality to be. That is, regardless of the origins of criminal behavior (situational or dispositional), do they believe that “once a criminal, always a criminal” or do they believe that even the most persistent offenders can redeem themselves and turn their lives around.’

Maruna and King begin by highlighting the limitations of existing criminological approach towards assessing public punitive attitudes. They argue that the previous studies did not look beyond the positivist/classical distinction in explaining punitiveness, restricting their focus only on public opinion on internal or external reasons for committing crime. They’ve criticised research that has attempted at equating punitiveness with penal goals, as well as research goals solely focusing on demographic or instrumental variables to explain punitiveness. Most importantly, the past research works have been called out for not keeping up with the massive developments in social psychological literature:

‘Most importantly, the relationship between attributions and public opinion about crime could be improved through a deeper, multi-dimensional engagement with the social psychological literature on attribution theory. After all, attribution theory has come a long way since Heider’s(1958) initial formulation. The literature on attributions and punitive public attitudes to date has almost entirely assumed a one- dimensional understanding of attributions involving internal and external responsibility for an act.’

To address this limitation, Maruna and King hypothesised that belief in redeemability will be a better predictor of punitive attitudes than standard attributional measures of whether crime is freely chosen or externally determined.

Assessing Belief in Redeemability: Conclusions and Implications

As per the study, the data suggests that public belief in redeemability and incapacitative practices appears to be inversely proportional to each other. Stronger the belief in redeemability, lesser the support for locking up offenders and “throwing away the key. However, it is also clarified that:

‘Importantly, although strong, the relationship between belief in redeemability and punitiveness does not suggest circularity between the two concepts. That is, they are not two sides of the same coin. After all, support for harsh punishment is not logically incompatible with a belief in redemption.’

Maruna and King also submit that positivists, who believe that external factors cause people to commit crimes, can also have punitive attitudes if they hold little or no hope in the redemption of offenders once the seed of criminality has been sown.

While the study does acknowledge that exposure to social scientific theory and evidence can mediate public opinion towards non-punitiveness, it also submits that research evidence and personal experiences on changing opinions through criminological research have not been hugely encouraging.

Maruna and King have identified four groups of views on public attitudes towards punitiveness:

  1. Offenders as “Victims of Society” Group: This group consists of a liberal view which believes in situational determinism. People in this group believe that since people are pushed to commit crime due to external forces, they can be brought back to a ‘straight path’ through concerted effort. Therefore, people in this group hold the least punitive attitudes.
  2. Offenders as “Permanently Damaged by Society”: This group also believes that crime is a result of external circumstances. However, they view offenders as hardened criminals who are incapable of redemption. Therefore, people in this group support longer sentences, not out of retributivist impulses but rather as a protective measure.
  3. Offenders as “People who made Bad Choices: This group consists of the truest classical thinkers. People in this group believe since crime is a choice, desistance is also a choice. Therefore, they argue for punitive measures based on deterrence and ‘justice-based’ retribution.
  4. Offenders as Evil: In defining the people in this group, Maruna and King noted that:

‘The final group in our sample is the most punitive in their views. They are also the most perplexing in terms of the logic of their thinking. Although they believe that crime “is a choice,” they also believe that offenders cannot choose to go straight, that “once a criminal, always a criminal.” On the surface, this appears to be contradictory. However, it makes sense if one believes that some individuals have a criminal nature. They are not pushed into criminality, as in the “damaged” model, they have chosen that life for themselves, but they could not do otherwise. They are criminal to the core.’

Complement this with Brickman and colleagues on Models of Hoping and Coping, and CS Dweck and colleagues A Social-Cognitive Approach To Motivation and Personality.



Annotating Criminology

I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology