Few things sum up the division of the UK around the riots like the sentencing of those involved. Some think courts are too lenient, while others gape at six month sentences for people who stole a bottle of water.
These judgments are often made on the basis of a single case, rather than any overall view. And you might think, in such a situation, that a journalist’s role would be to find out just how harsh or lenient sentencing has been – not just across the 1,600 or more people who have been arrested during the riots, but also in comparison to previous civil disturbances – or indeed, to similar crimes outside of a riot situation.
As Martin Belam argues:
“Really good data journalism will help us untangle the truth from those prejudiced assumptions. But this is data journalism that needs to stay the course, and seems like an ideal opportunity to do “long-form data journalism”. How long will these looters serve? What is the ethnic make-up and age range of those convicted? How many other criminals will get an early release because our jails are newly full of looters? How many people convicted this week will go on to re-offend?”
And yet, amazingly, we cannot reliably answer these questions – because it is still not possible to get raw data on sentencing in UK courts, not even through FOI.
In the absence of such data, The Guardian are attempting to collate data on convictions at magistrates courts (the Crown Courts have yet to get going), with over 200 cases in their spreadsheet.
It’s a laudable endeavour – but the very fact that they have to undertake it should be an embarrassment to the English and Welsh justice system.
Justice is blind – but so are we
The aphorism – from a case in the 1920s – that justice must not only be done, but “must also be seen to be done” is still not carried through into practical acts. A year ago Heather Brooke wrote about her own experiences along these lines, and the court’s desire to maintain “control” over recordings of court proceedings:
“Control” is exactly what a court shouldn’t be exerting. Once it is decided that it is open, there should be no restriction on how that open hearing is processed. She went on to say that she’d allow me to record now but I’d have to wait for a future ruling before I could “use” the recording. The next day in court the Judge announced she’d made her ruling. “Please turn your tape recorder off,” she said, looking sternly at me over her glasses. I did so.
8 months before that Will Perrin wrote about the problems of hyperlocal bloggers wishing to report on their courts.
Little has changed.
In frustration at this, a number of coders around the country have been attempting to find ways to record what happens in court. Examples include Cause List (cases being heard in the courts of England and Wales right now), InCourts Daily (simply names and times of cases being heard – it has dozens of Twitter accounts for particular regions) and the long-running BAILII, which publishes partial information on case law but this year hit funding problems (another useful resource is The Law Pages).
There is generic sentencing data on Data.gov.uk – but not at a level of detail or timeliness that would allow you to answer basic questions about ‘justice being done’ (in contrast, sentencing data for Scottish courts at the Judiciary of Scotland site, includes RSS feeds for sentencing statements and summaries of opinion, among others).
Newspapers: publish in structured formats
What remains – those dry court reports that fill the space between adverts in most local newspapers – could in theory be of use to those who want to ask bigger questions than “Which one of my neighbours has been in trouble?”
But it is being published online in a format which makes it far from easy for anyone to interrogate – including newspapers’ own journalists.
Take, for example, the Telegraph & Argus’s court pages: an RSS feed which says nothing more than “The following have been dealt with by Bradford magistrates” and dozens of judgments condensed into four paragraphs (there is some structure which you can extract into a table – but it could be easier).
Even a specialist service like Court News UK only appears to deal in stories, while, interestingly, the Wigan World website (which has partnered with the local paper) is a rarity in presenting court sentences in a basic table with an accompanying search facility. (If you know of any good examples of online court data, please let me know).
There’s something to be learned here: if newspapers published comprehensive sentencing data in tables, it’s more likely that users will help find the stories in them.
Meanwhile, sentencing data is increasingly (and arbitrarily) being published on Twitter by police authorities – starting with the West Midlands and Manchester – and journalists need to be able both to deal with that information, and check it.
If journalists are to do more than provide a platform for a blame game, we need to put pressure on the courts to publish as much sentencing data as possible, in as open a format as possible, and as close to real time as possible. Justice must be seen to be done.