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30th Mar 2023

Highlighting data gaps in criminal justice

Missing data matters. In this blog, Anna Powell-Smith, Director of the Centre for Public Data, explains how their new research, supported by Justice Lab, has highlighted data gaps in the criminal justice system.

If the Government doesn’t gather and report data, it can’t spot where services are failing. It can’t track improvement over time and, fundamentally, it can’t improve people’s lives. That’s why, back in 2020, I set up the Centre for Public Data, a non-profit with a mission to improve the quality of the UK’s public data and tackle data gaps

Since last summer, we’ve turned our attention to data gaps within the criminal justice system, including the police, courts and prisons. We have been generously supported in this by Justice Lab as part of their commitment to improving the quality and availability of justice system data.

We published the output of this research this week and it highlights four key areas where public data is lacking, and where we think this can feasibly be improved. 

How we identified data gaps

Our definition of these gaps was “areas where a lack of published data makes it hard to answer questions of significant public interest”. To identify questions of public interest, we began by studying public resources.

Our brilliant researcher Gideon Leibowitz studied hundreds of reports from various important sources, including Select Committees, the independent justice inspectorates and leading civil society organisations, to compile instances where the authors stated that better data was needed.

We also wrote code to analyse thousands of Parliamentary written questions to the Ministry of Justice, automatically identifying questions that couldn’t be answered for lack of data.

As we delved deeper, we discovered recurring themes of experts and MPs requesting the same information about aspects of criminal justice repeatedly, only to be told that it wasn’t available.

We openly shared these sources and findings and talked to experts to understand the impact these data gaps have on their work. We also used our technical expertise to explore the underlying data to determine which gaps could potentially be filled.

We don’t think anyone has studied data gaps systematically like this before and, naturally, our methodology isn’t perfect (we discuss its limitations in the full report). But it really demonstrates just how much justice system stakeholders are affected by data gaps. It’s also scalable and potentially automatable in future.

What’s more, we believe that data gaps in these areas can be improved with just a little technical effort, as much of the underlying data needed is already being recorded. Filling them shouldn’t need expensive new surveys, or data collection that creates new burdens on busy court staff. 

Four crucial data gaps

We found many areas where MPs and researchers have called for better data. But in our research we chose to study four significant areas more closely, providing recommendations in each:

  1. Remand and bail: Many organisations have pointed out that there is no regular data available on essential aspects of remand and bail. For instance, we lack information on the number of people who are held beyond the legal time limit for remand. This is not just a civil liberties issue but also vital to understand whether the public is being kept safe.
  2. Sentencing: MPs have frequently requested data on sentencing, particularly for ‘flagged’ offences such as domestic abuse or hate crime, but have often been unable to obtain it. And, although the government pledged in 2017 to release data about sentencing patterns at individual courts, it has yet to do so.
  3. Court operations: Basic data on court operations is lacking, as organisations including Justice Lab have highlighted – especially data that could indicate where the system is struggling or requires additional resources. For example, we do not knowhow long it takes individual courts to deal with particular types of crime, such as sexual assault or types of fraud, restricting our ability to understand the impact of delays on victims. 
  4. Low-level offending: There is also a distinct lack of data on anti-social behaviour and offences dealt with out of court. We don’t even have fundamental information about how often authorities use their powers to tackle these offences, or how effective the system is in reducing reoffending.

Our full report discusses these gaps in detail – covering the needs expressed by users, providing recommendations for improvement, and linking to more detailed briefings on each area. 

What happens now?

We know it would be naive to suggest that all the justice system’s problems can be solved with better data. But it does have real consequences – for policy and for people. Missing data really matters.

So, we believe it’s now time for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to act. As producers of official statistics, MoJ has to follow the Code of Practice for Statistics, which obliges them to consider filling “identified information gaps”. We argue that the MoJ has a responsibility to recognise and address the gaps identified by stakeholders, as presented in the report. 

As well as underpinning efficient operation of the justice system, high-quality criminal justice data sheds light on the experiences of victims and defendants, and provides necessary accountability. It also tells stakeholders, civil servants and others how the justice system operates and what is working or not. It is not an optional extra. 

Data gaps limit the scope of public inquiry, breed mistrust and can serve to disguise poor treatment of particular groups of people. It is only by listening and responding to user needs that the MoJ can address its data gaps and facilitate a more meaningful conversation around the state of our criminal justice system. Our report explains what it has to do.