9 March 2021
Learning about the sentencing process for assault and criminal damage offences
Majid Bastan-Hagh, Social Researcher, talks about the Council’s data-collection exercise on assault and criminal damage offences that is running in all magistrates’ courts in England and Wales until 7 May 2021.
What is the data collection?
The data collection is survey-based research that gathers information about vital features of the sentencing process, including culpability and harm factors, aggravating and mitigating factors, guilty plea reductions and sentence outcomes. Previously, the data collection involved magistrates, deputy district judges and district judges completing paper survey forms but, to reduce burdens on participants, in 2019 we moved to conducting this digitally. The survey is now completed via survey forms that can be found on the Sentencing Council website or via the Sentencing Guidelines app for iPads.
Why do we do it?
The Council has a statutory duty to monitor the operation of our guidelines, and this type of data collection is pivotal to our monitoring and evaluation work. While existing data from the Ministry of Justice allows us to analyse data on the volumes and sentencing outcomes of offences, they do not provide information on the reasons behind these outcomes. To make sure we can properly monitor and evaluate sentencing guidelines, it is critical that we can run these data collections to collect the additional information.
The data from our collections are analysed and the findings fed back to the Sentencing Council. Council members then consider whether any improvements are needed to the guideline. In this way, our data collections feed into the Council’s objective to promote greater transparency and consistency in sentencing.
Previous, similar exercises have been very helpful in indicating areas where guidelines may need revision: as a result, the Council is either revisiting them already or has committed to reviewing them in due course.
What are we hoping to get from it?
We are gathering data on:
- Assault on an emergency worker
- Assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH)/ Racially or religiously aggravated ABH
- Common assault/ Racially or religiously aggravated common assault
- Criminal damage/ Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage (value not exceeding £5,000)
- Criminal damage/ Racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage (value exceeding £5,000)
Our aim is to gather key information about the sentencing process for all these offences. Since the basis of our evaluative work is to compare sentencing before and after a definitive guideline is introduced, we collect data in both periods. We then use these two sets of data to make an assessment of whether (and how) a guideline may have had an impact on sentencing practice, and whether there have been any issues with implementation that may need rectifying.
For the assault offences, we are collecting what we call the ‘pre-guideline’ data. This is data for the period before a definitive set of guidelines are set to come into force. For the criminal damage offences, however, we are collecting the ‘post-guideline’ data, which unsurprisingly is data after the definitive guidelines comes into force (some readers may recall that we collected the pre-guideline data for these offences in 2017).
Our Analysis and Research team will use both sets of data relating to criminal damage offences to complete the comparative analysis. Later (usually at least a year after a guideline comes into force) our team will collect the post-guideline data for the assault offences and complete a similar process of analysis and evaluation.
To make sure that the analysis we complete is robust and produces meaningful results, it is vital that our data collections are widely participated in across England and Wales. That is why we are so grateful for the continued efforts from both sentencers and court staff to promote and engage with our research.
What are the next steps for the current data collection?
The data collection has been running for a little over two months now, and we are incredibly grateful to all the magistrates, deputy district judges and district judges who have contributed to the exercise thus far. We are especially thankful for sentencers’ participation in light of continued pressures on the courts as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The data show that response rates are looking good and that we are off to a great start. Our goal now is to continue this momentum as best as possible until 7 May 2021, when the data collection ends.
Will the data be accessible to the public?
Yes – once we conclude the current data collection and complete our analytical and evaluative work for this period, we aim to publish the data on our website. Our team has recently released magistrates’ court data on theft from a shop or stall, which you can find out more about on the research and analysis pages of the website. We hope that this type of data sharing will be of benefit to members of the public, including academics who are researching in the area.
The Council would like to thank all sentencers and court staff who are contributing to this project. Your help and support is invaluable.