20th January 2022
The Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee (SGIC) has published the First Interim Report prepared by the University of Strathclyde as part of a project entitled “Assessing Methodological Approaches to Sentencing Data Collection & Analysis”. This first report explores the statistical information necessary to support guideline construction and guideline monitoring.
Overall, the researchers found data deficits in: quality of data about sentencing practices; data on District Courts; administrative data; and Irish Prison Service data.
The report assesses the annual reports of three justice agencies to review the quality of the data published therein.
In exploring administrative data, the report notes that because each agency collects data that is relevant to their own work, it has led to fractured data that is very difficult to assess cumulatively. The report recommends that all agencies agree on a uniform categorisation of offences. One event marked by the Gardaí (a robbery, with for different offenders, for example) may turn into four referrals before the DPP, which means that there are likely counting issues that are not addressed.
Issues with administrative data in terms of sentencing include the broad offence categories and the categorization of recorded crime data published by the CSO as “under reservation”, because it doesn’t meet the standards required by the CSO. As statistics on recorded crime are useful for making predictions about the future workload of the courts, the authors recommend that the CSO work with the Sentencing Guidelines and Information Committee in future research that may have a bearing on sentencing practices, since the CSO already works on recidivism rates.
The research notes the challenges for researchers in accessing data for research purposes, including: statutory limitations to court audio; collecting court observations is time consuming; and newspapers only report some cases, with media bias prevalent, but also useful as they often contain comments from judges and information about trials and outcomes.
The report notes: “Perhaps the biggest impediment is the lack of reliable, comprehensive and up-to-date official data. The lack of such official data has meant that problematic sources (in that they are not ideally suited) such as newspapers are relied on at times. In other instances, the lack of official data has also meant that ad-hoc data requests have been used.” The report notes that the ability of criminal justice agencies to respond to requests by organisations may suggest there is potential for a thorough and structured approach to collecting and publishing data.
ISIS project, which was a pilot that involved researchers observing cases in court, is discussed in the report. The focus of ISIS was mainly on the Circuit Court in Dublin. The researchers would record the details of a case on a standardised template, and this would be added to the database. An effort was also made to record data on District Court cases. However, this was impractical given the setup at the time. Interestingly, data from the ISIS project was publicly available and accessible online. Although no longer actively maintained, the Irish Sentencing Information System is still worth discussion as the authors believe it may, in principle, represent one way forward.
The report notes that the SGIC must have regard to “sentences that are imposed by the courts” while preparing guidelines. The identification of appropriate headline sentences is very important for the development of a sentencing system. (The Committee provided a comprehensive table to the researchers consisting of a brief summary of over 800 Court of Appeal judgments with links to each judgment.)
The First Interim Report found that while there has been some modest progress in data on trial court sentencing processes, there are profound limitations on sentencing data in Ireland. In the absence of this data, information has been mainly at the hands of the media, who choose specific cases and therefore often lead to public misperceptions of sentencing and sentencing trends.
The second interim report will provide a review and analysis of the range of data methodologies adopted in some other broadly comparable jurisdictions where a body equivalent to the SGIC has been established.
Read the First Interim Report on Assessing Methodological Approaches to Sentencing Data & Analysis on the Judicial Council website here.