Making Community Punishments more Effective

Project reference: LE73

Application deadline: 10th April 2023

How to apply

Sentencing research has been traditionally restricted by limitations on data availability. Researchers have had to rely on aggregate date from the Ministry of Justice, or one-off surveys of judges such as the Crown Court Sentencing Survey which is now outdated (data collection ceased in 2014). The new linked administrative databases released by ADR UK will permit researchers to explore a much wider range of sentencing questions and to greater depth.

This project will make an important contribution to the literature on Effective Sentencing. Specifically, the analyses will explore the relative effectiveness of different requirements attached to a community order. Courts have the discretion to impose a range of requirements on offenders serving community orders, yet almost nothing is known about which conditions or combinations of requirements, are most effective in reducing re-offending. Sentencers are effectively sentencing in the dark, relying on the individual experiences and intuitions of judges and magistrates.

Furthermore, this dataset will enable the analysis of hitherto under-explored aspects of sentencing that carry potential consequences for social inequalities. In particular, this project will examine whether the number, nature, and onerousness of requirements varies according to the ethnicity of the offender. If, for instance, the requirements imposed on BAME defendants differed from those imposed on White defendants convicted of the same offence, then this could, in turn, help us understand differences in re-offending rates. Given the great desire by central government to make sentencing more consistent, effective, cost-effective and fair, it is anticipated that this research will have an important impact on policy and practice in the field.

Given the absence of empirical research on this area, there is scope to produce impactful findings just from simple descriptive statistics. However, the PhD student will have the opportunity to be trained in two areas of advanced statistical analysis, data visualisation and longitudinal data analysis. Creating intuitive data visualisation tools will be key to be able to summarise and convey large amounts of findings in a way that is meaningful to non-statistically trained audiences. Similarly, the longitudinal dimension of the dataset and the research questions, will require the student to be trained in advanced statistical techniques like sequence analysis and growth curve and autoregressive models. Many of these techniques are currently covered in the MSc in Data Analytics organised by the CDT Data Analytics & Society. Those techniques that are not covered there will be learnt through participation in specific short courses such as those delivered by LIDA Societies, the Consumer Data Research Centre, or external courses such as those advertised by the National Centre for Research Methods or the Royal Statistical Society.

Project data:

The PhD project will involve exploiting new criminal justice datasets made available by the Data First project, a collaboration between Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK), the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Her Majesty Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS). Specifically, the Data First project has made it possible to ONS accredited researchers, to access administrative data from the MoJ, and HMCTS, under a secure protocol.

Some elements of these administrative datasets are currently being explored by Jose Pina-Sánchez (primary supervisor) using the safe rooms available in LIDA. These relate to case-level datasets capturing all hearings that took place at the Magistrates’ and the Crown Court in England and Wales from as early as 2011 (2013 for the Crown Court data) and updated on an annual basis.

The PhD student undertaking this project will employ a new release from the Data First, where sentencing and prison records have been linked at the individual level. This new dataset offers a unique opportunity to explore the subject of reoffending, and in particular how different sentencing requirements affect the probability of offenders to avoid re-entering the criminal justice system. This dataset is truly unparalleled, as it combines high coverage (covers all offenders processed through criminal courts in England and Wales) and high detail (includes all the procedural details of the sentences imposed, such as any kind of rehabilitation programs, their duration and degree of completion), and it will allow the PhD project to undertake worldwide innovative research on a topic of high policy relevance.

Project Partner

This project’s external partner is the Sentencing Academy. The Academy has committed to contribute to the success of the project and the development of the student in several ways. First, it has committed to the requisite degree of funding (£24K over 4 years), which represents a considerable investment for the Academy given its condition as a Charity.

Second, the project will be eminently collaborative, with academics and practitioners from the Sentencing Academy offering technical support and advice at all stages of the research. This commitment can be evidenced by the engagement of Prof. Roberts, Dr Bild and Miss Curzon (respectively Executive Director, Deputy Director, and Communications & Research Lead of the Sentencing Academy) in the identification of research questions for the project and co-writing of this proposal. In addition to offering regular supervision guidance, the Academy will also host short (one-week long) placements throughout multiple points of the PhD project, mainly to facilitate the interpretation of findings, discuss follow up research questions, and participate in sentencing events hosted by the Academy.

Third, the Academy will assist in the dissemination of research findings, drawing upon its unique network of contacts covering academics, practitioners, government researchers, policy-makers, charities, campaigners, and other members of the general public interested in sentencing questions. For example, the Sentencing Academy holds periodic sentencing seminars, and it would include presentations from this research in these seminars. Similar, after completion of different milestones of the project, such as the MSc Dissertation, or some of the academic articles that will stem from the thesis, the Sentencing Academy would also publish an accessible account for the research findings on its website.