BLOG - Unlocking criminal justice data

Last month, SCADR were delighted to host an online event on unlocking criminal justice data. The event attracted researchers and practitioners from a wide range of organisations, including universities, justice organisations and the Scottish and UK Government, who came together to hear about and discuss early findings from exciting research projects using administrative data from the Data First programme. The event was a great success, with many attendees expressing how inspired they were by the research showcased and the enormous opportunities for future studies.

What is Data First?

Data First is an ambitious data linkage programme led by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and funded by Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK). The purpose is to unlock the potential of linked administrative data across the various MoJ agencies and other government departments for research to inform policies to improve the outcomes and experiences of justice users. The MoJ Data First programme creates research-ready administrative datasets (that have been de-identified, de-duplicated and linked) for analysis by government and accredited academic researchers in an ethical and safe manner.

Showcasing emerging research

The event focused on emerging findings based on the linked criminal courts and MoJ-DfE linked datasets and offered a great opportunity for researchers and practitioners to discuss some of the challenges facing criminal justice today. It was co-organised with Data First’s Academic Lead, Professor Andromachi Tseloni, who spoke alongside several MoJ Social Researchers and statisticians:

  • Amy Summerfield, MoJ’s Head of Evidence and Partnerships, talked about the necessity of data linking for the public good, reflected on some of the challenges, and provided an overview of what has been achieved to date and MoJ’s Data First plans for the next three years.
  • Professor Tseloni presented on the frequency, offence patterns and locality of returning defendants to the criminal courts, drawing on findings from her collaborative, ONS award winning, MoJ-led Data First Criminal Courts research report.
  • MoJ statisticians presented their findings on the links between education, children’s social care and offending from their MoJ-DfE statistics publication. They highlighted that a high proportion of justice users have special educational needs, but the link between permanent exclusions and serious violence may not be as clear cut as generally perceived.

ADR UK is funding a number of fellowships using MoJ Data First data, which are shining a light on the experiences and outcomes of people using the justice system as well as data limitations and needs for improvements at source. We heard from the following ADR UK funded Research Fellows:

  • Dr Tim McSweeney described his preliminary findings on the extent, nature and outcomes of serious and organised crime cases prosecuted through the courts in England and Wales.
  • Dr Angela Sorsby discussed the results of her investigation into gender and race inequalities in sentencing practice in England and Wales.
  • Dr Katie Hunter illustrated the relationships between ethnicity, care experience and youth justice involvement, and stressed the importance of looking at data on race, gender, deprivation and care experience through the lens of intersectionality. She said:

I was delighted to take part in the event bringing together researchers who share a passion for using the datasets. There were a range of disciplines represented and speakers at various stages of their careers. As an ECR, I felt welcome and inspired to continue my work on admin data.

Opportunities and challenges

Data First offers many opportunities for learning more about justice experienced individuals in England and Wales, which will be valuable in terms of improving organisational knowledge and providing rich evidence on which to build new policies and practices. Responding to some of the presentations, Dr Gill Robinson from the Scottish Prison Service highlighted the importance of having access to these types of data to examine emerging problems.  She noted that the emerging findings from Data First reflect major policy challenges, and that without the data it would be impossible to encourage change.

Nevertheless, the event did highlight some challenges of using administrative data which, by definition, are not collected for research purposes. There are errors and biases in recording, which mean that findings should be interpreted and used with caution and where possible considered alongside relevant evidence from other sources. Despite this, Dr Robinson felt that, with appropriate collaboration across government, universities and organisations, these types of data linkage could help to build a valuable ‘whole-system perspective’ of important challenges.

What does Data First mean for Scotland?

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent initiative to Data First in Scotland. The data required to create a Scottish Data First are held by multiple organisations which makes negotiating access very complex. In addition, increasing justice data availability in Scotland is only one of a set of competing priorities being considered by the Scottish Government, so any planned data linkage is likely to take some time to achieve.

Still, there is much to be learned from the experience of the Data First programme in terms of drawing inspiration for the future. Many of the issues and problems impacting on justice systems in England and Wales are also observed in Scotland, and so learning from the emerging research can help us to consider what might be the most useful work to initiate here when data availability allows. Such learning will help us to ‘capitalise on the infrastructure already in place between ADR Scotland and Research Data Scotland to create something really exciting for Scotland’ as noted by Amy Wilson, Head of Justice Analytical Services at the Scottish Government.

Final Reflections

The Data First programme in England and Wales represents a shift in narrative from ‘what can be done’ to ‘what is being done’ with crime data. Thanks to the MoJ and ADR UK partnership, we are starting to have a much better understanding of the characteristics and experiences of those who interact with the justice system. This work is already providing valuable insights into areas of inequality, highlighting cross-cutting vulnerabilities, and challenging existing stereotypes around the causes of offending. These are all valuable examples of how linking administrative data can be used for the public good. We look forward to the day that Scotland can also take forward such important work.

This article was published on 14 Nov 2022

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Ana Morales