Sentencing Council analysis and research to take new approach in 2015
by Victoria Obudulu, Senior Statistician
Our approach to researching and analysing sentencing data will be changing from the end of March when we move from using the existing Crown Court Sentencing Survey (CCSS) to focusing on specific offences or other guideline subject areas.
The CCSS, the first survey of its kind to look at sentencing in the Crown Court, has been running for four-and-a-half years and during that time it has given us a huge amount of data that was never available before. It was therefore extremely valuable in providing data as the Council developed guidelines in its first few years of existence. Now that we have gained that data, we are evolving our analytical approach to develop more focussed and targeted “guideline-specific” data collection in both magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court.
This is a massive progression for the Council and there are bound to be challenges. In the months ahead, I’ll be developing alternative ways to obtain robust and representative information, while making sure this does not create a significant workload for sentencers and court staff.
Their help in providing the information needed for our research so far has been invaluable. For example, I have used the information collected on guilty pleas to show how the proportion of offenders who pleaded at the first reasonable opportunity and obtained the maximum reduction in sentence compared to those who pleaded much later and still received the maximum reduction. This has helped the Council’s current work on developing a new guideline for guilty plea reductions.
The survey has also helped the Council assess how guidelines are used in practice. I’ve used the data to estimate the sentence length before any guilty plea reduction and compared with guideline starting points and ranges. This enabled us to monitor whether sentences passed are within the category range. I’ve also used the data to produce detailed information about the types of robbery offences coming before the courts which was used in developing the robbery offences guideline.
The data has also been used outside the Council. For example, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has used it to inform their publication on women and the criminal justice system: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/women-and-the-criminal-justice-system-2013
I’ve used a number of data sets during my time as a government statistician but none have been as rich and interesting as the CCSS. The dataset is huge; it includes over 2,000 variables and as you can imagine, sometimes it’s a bit tricky identifying the appropriate variable to use for analysis.
Working without the CCSS will be a major change for us, but the new approach is also an exciting evolution; it will give me the opportunity to obtain and analyse data that was not available or practical to collect on the CCSS. For example, it will enable us to zero in on providing evidence for starting points and category ranges and improve evaluation of the effect of guidelines on sentencing.
Although the survey will end on 31 March, I’ll still be processing the data until June. The Council has collected data since October 2010 so it’s a very rich and useful data source on sentencing decisions and the factors used in reaching them. The Council is therefore keen to make the best use of all the data collected and ensure it is available on its website for academics, researchers and other interested parties.
Data for sentences passed between October and December 2014 will be coming through at the end of the month. I’ll run extensive data cleansing before matching the data to administrative data from the MoJ. Once that’s done, I’ll create cleaned up and consistent versions of the variables I need for further analysis and then the data will be ready to use.
The main published output will be the 2014 annual publication which will be published on 25 June. I’ll also publish anonymised underlying data at the same time so interested parties can do their own analysis. I’ll continue to use the data to inform development of future guidelines, the sentencing of youths and monitor and assess the impact of the drugs guideline in sentencing drug mules.
As we move from the existing approach to a new one, we expect to be able to produce even more specific and targeted analysis and research to support the development of new sentencing guidelines and monitor the existing ones. We are very grateful to judges, magistrates and court staff in helping us to achieve this.