16 February 2021
Theft from a shop or stall – data release
Charlotte Davidson, Senior Statistical Officer, on the data we have published covering this theft offence and why it is such an important step for the Council.
This is the first time that the Council has published magistrates’ court data. The datasets provide a very rich and detailed source that can tell us about the variety of factors sentencers are taking into account when arriving at their sentencing decision. It will be a valuable resource for the Council and criminal justice researchers, and we’re excited to have been able finally to publish it.
What kind of information will we find within these datasets?
Firstly, there are details of the factors taken into account by sentencers when they made their sentencing decision. These details include factors related to the culpability of the offender, such as the level of planning and the use of force or threat, and factors related to the harm caused by the offence, including things such as the value of the goods that were stolen and whether emotional distress or injury was caused to the victim. There are also details of any aggravating or mitigating factors (including previous convictions), information about whether the defendant pleaded guilty and, if they did, how the sentencer then adjusted the sentence to account for that. The data also tell us about the final sentence the magistrates imposed, including what type of sentence and how long it was.
Is this the first time the Council has published data with this level of detail?
For a magistrates’ court offence, yes. Previously we used to run and publish data from the Crown Court Sentencing Survey (CCSS) but, as the name suggests, this was conducted only in the Crown Court, so there was a gap regarding sentencing data from the magistrates’ courts. While we started collecting data from magistrates’ courts some time ago, the Council is committed to publishing the relevant guideline assessment before releasing the data. It takes time to finalise these data collections ready for publication, so this is the first opportunity we have had to publish this type of data.
Why else are you hoping this dataset will be useful?
As well as newly providing detailed sentencing data for the magistrates’ courts, it will also give us a level of detail not seen before, even in the CCSS, with regards to the sentencing outcome, for example: the level of community order, the fine band and the length of suspended sentences. We have also published a new ‘single most important factor’ variable.
Single most important factor?
This was a question on the data collection forms that asked sentencers to indicate the single most important sentencing factor that they took into account when reaching their sentencing decision. This might have been something to do with the facts of the case, such as the value of goods stolen, or something related to the offender themselves, such as a particular mitigating factor. We wanted to determine whether there were any factors that were driving sentencing trends for this offence.
Are the sentencers’ raw answers provided in the published data?
We are unable to publish the sentencers’ original responses as this would have meant disclosing information that could potentially lead to identification of specific individual offenders: something we worked hard to avoid. Instead, we used an analytical method to categorise their responses into common themes, based around the individual sentencing factors collected in other parts of the form. This provided us with an overarching structure, enabling us to slot each unique answer into a shared set of factors for the data collected both before and after the new guideline.
Were there any other changes you had to make to reduce the risk of disclosure?
We removed the court name and the date and, more generally, sentencing factors that were used fewer than 10 times. This means that, in some cases, a factor may appear in one of either the pre or post datasets but not in both. This shouldn’t affect the overall usefulness of the data because these infrequent uses would have been unlikely to yield strong conclusions anyway.
What are you hoping users will do with the data?
We think that the data will be useful for people interested in the sentencing decision-making process and the key factors that contribute to the final sentencing outcome, particularly academics and others who have identified that there is a real lack of detailed data on sentencing at the magistrates’ courts. We are also hoping to use the data internally to help inform the Council’s understanding of sentencing for lower-level offences.
Can users get in touch with their feedback on the data?
We really hope users will do this. We want to hear their suggestions for how we can improve future releases to make sure the data we are publishing is as helpful as possible. We have put together a feedback survey that people can complete online to tell us about how they are using the data, which elements they think are most useful and what changes they might like to see in future releases. The survey is open until 17 March 2021. We also published a background note that sets out our intentions behind this survey. Alternatively, we would welcome thoughts via email at email@example.com.
Does that mean this publication is the first in a series?
Since the CCSS was stopped, the Council moved to conducting targeted offence-specific data collections to gather the evidence needed to develop and evaluate sentencing guidelines and we want to share this evidence with the public. Users should watch this space for data on drug offences collected at magistrates’ courts at the same time as the theft from a shop or stall data, and robbery data collected from the Crown Court.