Tag Archives: sentencing

Sentencing data update: Manchester Evening News make another splash

Since I wrote about the need for more data journalism around sentencing in August, the Manchester Evening News have been beavering away keeping track of riot sentencing data on their own patch with stories on the first 60 looters to be sentenced and the role of poverty. Last week the newspaper finally made a splash on the figures.

The collected data led to this front page story: Looters jailed straight after Manchester riots given terms 30 per cent longer than those punished later.

While another article builds up a detailed profile of the rioters with plenty of visualisation, and links to the raw data.

The MEN’s Paul Gallagher had previously told me in an email correspondence that they were expecting at least 250-300 cases to be going through the courts in total, making “enough to make a very interesting and useful dataset but not so many as to make it too big a job.

“This spreadsheet is being completed using information provided by our journalists in court. The MEN is committed to staffing every court hearing so we should be able to fill this over time. This is a trial project limited only to the riots, and I don’t know if we will do anything with other court data in future.”

At the time Paul was trying to set up a system that would see court reporters add information when they covered a case, a system that could be used to publish court data in future.

“One of the biggest problems I have found is that we can produce graphics quite easily for online using Google Fusion Tables and other tools but it is difficult to turn these into graphics that will work in print without getting a graphic designer to recreate the image.”

A couple months on Paul remarks that the project has required significant editorial resources:

“Around ten MEN journalists have either sat in court to take down details of one or more riot cases in the last three months, or have been involved in the data analysis.”

He also says the exercise has raised some questions about the use, and sharing, of court data.

“Although the names and home addresses of adult defendants are published in court reports in the media, it does not seem appropriate to include them in shared spreadsheets, or to plot them on street level maps.

“For that reason, I decided to remove the names and personal details when we plotted home addresses of defendants on a map of Greater Manchester to visualise the correlation between rioters and high levels of poverty and deprivation.

The Manchester Evening News have not decided if they will continue their data work on other non-riot-related court data, which Paul feels “begs the question why court data is not publicly available from official sources.”
“At the moment there is no other way of getting this information than to have a person sat in court at every hearing, jotting down the details in their notebook and then copying them into a spreadsheet.”

The data and visualisation was also used in last night’s Panorama: Inside The Riots. Disappointingly, the Panorama website and solitary blog post include no links to the MEN coverage or data, and the official Twitter account not only failed to link – it has failed to tweet at all in almost two weeks.

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Why we need open courts data – and newspapers need to improve too

Justice

Justice photo by mira66

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. Continue reading