Is offering a suspect a moral or psychological excuse for committing the crime the same as offering them a promise of leniency if they confess?

Written By: Joseph P. Buckley
Jun 03, 2024

Social psychologists and other law enforcement critics suggest that during interrogation if the investigator offers the subject a moral or psychological excuse for committing the crime, it is tantamount to making a promise of leniency…. suggesting, at least indirectly, that if the subject had a “good reason” it would minimize their punishment. The courts reject this premise.

Before detailing several of these court decisions, it is important to understand the reason for offering the subject some type of moral or psychological justification for committing the crime during an interrogation….some type of rationalization or projection….such as blaming an accomplice for suggesting the crime; the influence of alcohol or drugs on the subject’s judgment; the financial pressures that they were experiencing; that it was an accident, etc.

According to criminal psychologist Shadd Maruna studies indicate that the majority of criminals either make excuses for or attempt to justify their actions.... "as a way to mitigate the guilt.”

"Criminologists have interviewed every imaginable sample of individuals who break laws and found remarkable consistency in the use of what we call 'techniques of neutralization,'" Maruna explained. "There have been studies of deer poachers, terrorists, rapists, shoplifters, cyber hackers, murderers—you name it. And yet the individuals involved tend to use a very consistent and discernible number of post-hoc rationalizations to account for what they did."

These "techniques of neutralization" form the basis of a concept known as "neutralization theory," which was posited by sociologists David Matza and Gresham Sykes in the 1950s. The theory holds that criminals are able to neutralize values that would otherwise prohibit them from carrying out certain acts by using one or up to five methods of justification: "denial of responsibility," "denial of injury," "denial of the victim," "condemnation of the condemners," and "appealing to higher loyalties.

“I didn’t really hurt anybody,” “They had it coming to them,” and “I didn’t do it for myself” are, as Sykes and Matza point out, examples of neutralizations. Neutralizations, also called rationalizations, are defined as justifications and excuses for deviant behavior.

"Denial of responsibility" is when an offender proposes that he or she was forced by the circumstances they were in to commit a crime; "denial of injury" means insisting that the crime was harmless; "denial of the victim" involves the belief that the person on the receiving end was asking for it; and "condemnation of the condemners" is when the criminal claims that those criticizing or dishing out punishment are doing so out of spite or to shift the blame from themselves. The final method, "appealing to higher loyalties," involves the perpetrator believing that the law needs to be broken for the good of a smaller section of society—for example, a gang or a group of friends.

Given the use of rationalizations by criminal offenders, the suggestion by an investigator that an accomplice talked them into committing the act under investigation; suggesting that the victim was accidentally shot; suggesting that the subject’s financial pressures caused him to act out of character, or blaming the victim for doing or saying something that provoked the incident are oftentimes simply justifications that the subject has already adopted.

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