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Poor sentencing info is ‘dire’ risk to public confidence
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21 Feb 2023 / justice Print

Poor sentencing info is ‘dire’ risk to public confidence

A serious problem with data is hampering the work of the Judicial Council Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee (SGIC), a new report has found.

Current data about sentencing is “profoundly limited and inadequate for its tasks”, the report states, and unlikely to offer insights into real-world sentencing practices.

Neither can existing datasets be easily linked.

This “threatens the fulfilment of the statutory function” of the SGIC, which is now demanding funding for a new research unit under the aegis of the Judicial Council.

Significant and sustained investment, and a systematic, concerted effort is required to meet this data deficit, the report adds.

Analysis of sentencing data

The SGIC launched the report, commissioned from the University of Strathclyde, at the Distillery Building in Dublin 7, on 21 February.

The report assesses approaches to sentencing-data collection and analysis in other jurisdictions, as well in Ireland.

Good sentencing guidelines depend on good data, the report states, and the latter need to be established before the former can be created and implemented.

The SGIC will now come up with a suitable data-collection and management strategy.

Database essential

A sentencing database in Ireland is essential, the report states, but no particular means of data collection is recommended by the authors.

Without accessible and up-to-date sentencing information, press reporters cannot place emerging sentences in a statistical context, the authors point out, with consequent risks to public confidence.

Importance of District Court

Collecting data on District Court sentencing practice will pose distinct challenges, the authors point out.

“The importance of this court, which is, of course, a court founded on the Constitution, within the criminal-justice system, cannot be overstated,” the report states.

The District Court also has extensive jurisdiction over indictable, as well as summary, offences.

Information on sentencing practices in all Irish courts has limits, but these are particularly acute in the District Court, the report states.

Brand-new data-collection exercise

The SGIC wants a brand-new data-collection exercise, given that linking existing criminal-justice-agency data (such as from the Courts Service and Irish Prison Service) “is unlikely to be achievable, nor provide the necessary information, in the short or medium term”.

A judicially led information system would enable a high degree of control of how and what data are collected, but the report notes that, elsewhere, these systems “tend to be vulnerable to the winds of political and judicial change”.

This accessibility of Ministry of Justice data in Britain has deteriorated in recent decades, the authors find.

The experience in England and Wales suggests that, to create and update guidelines, it is necessary to collect some data directly from sentencers and/or sentencing courts.

Depth and breadth

The SGIC should aim for depth and breadth in data, the report states, with the ability to monitor real-world sentence trends over time, with a consistent methodology, to inform planning for the future.

Accessible sentencing data promotes transparency of judicial practice and accountability, and, ultimately, enables improvements, the report states.

Courts Service and the Irish Prison Service data may be adequate for their institutional purposes, but “wholly inadequate for the tasks which the SGIC is statutorily required to undertake”, the report states.

Linking existing datasets is likely to be a long-term and difficult project that will require different agencies to record and share more information according to common standards, the report states.

No information

Prison Service data on sentence lengths is limited because some of the 123 offence categories are very broad (“dangerous or negligent acts” or “theft and related offences”) and provide no information on the specific conduct in respect of which the sentences are being served.

These statistics relate solely to prison sentences, whereas non-custodial sentences are imposed for many offences within the various categories.

“While the Courts Service statistics permit certain conclusions to be drawn about the extent to which the various sentencing options are used for certain offences or, more commonly, broad categories of offences, they are of little assistance for the purpose of identifying the sentences imposed for different variants of all the offences, or even the more commonly prosecuted ones, coming before the criminal courts,” the report continues.

The SGIC wants qualified personnel to record data in a manner that balances consistency in recording practices with familiarity with the case.

Methodological challenges present when persons are convicted of more than one offence in the same case. The SGIC will draw on academic expertise for comment and constructive assistance, as well as having a role in anonymised peer review of SGIC research reports.

Newspaper reports

“In the absence of alternatives, newspaper reports can offer the only source of information in many instances,” the report states.

This largely untapped resource contains information about offences, trials, and outcomes, including remarks made by defendants, victims, judges, solicitors, and gardaí.

But this data is unlikely to be representative, and is likely to be of limited detail.

Reliance on newspapers reflects the paucity of official statistical data, which in its absence has potentially dire consequences for public confidence, the report states.

“The extent to which the criminal-justice system operates in the absence of informed comment, research, and critical scrutiny is striking. Often, the good quality information that is required to allow a sensible discussion simply does not exist,” the report states.

‘Robust, yet not burdensome’

Administrative statistics alone will be insufficient. The challenge for a sentencing guidelines authority is to devise a data-collection procedure that is sufficiently robust, yet not perceived by judicial officers as too burdensome.

“The experiences of the USA, and England and Wales, demonstrate that a sentencing council (or similar body) with a suitable research function can achieve things that a Court of Criminal Appeal is unable to do,” the report states.

Public trust

Sentencing policy and practice are central to the administration of justice, but also to public confidence and trust in State institutions – including the judiciary – the report states.

An obvious remedy for this serious gap between public perception and reality is for sentencing councils (or other bodies) to engage with the public with a view to improving public knowledge.

The absence of reliable, comprehensive, and up-to-date sentencing data hampers this goal, the report concludes.

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