Crime in Context: Harnessing administrative data for better justice

As we in the UK experience sudden changes to our lives and routines from March 2020, I see the hunger for good administrative data to help guide the public and the politicians through the trail of Covid-19. From the front line to strategic decisions, our daily attention to the Covid-19 projections on health and wellbeing place acute demands for the best routine data to guide the science. 

For nearly two decades, I have worked at the heart of the policing and justice sector harnessing administrative data to assist better decision making.In this rapidly changing climate, the need for good quality data on outcomes that is accurate and reliable has landed, big time. In the justice sector, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ)’s Data First Programme, funded by ADR UK, is a pioneer, preparing its administrative information – firstly on criminal courts – for access by accredited researchers. My role as the External Advisor to the programme draws on decades of experience as a researcher in the area of crime and justice, as well as over 15 years of working as the head of evidence and insight within the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) in London, and steering performance and strategic analysis in the Metropolitan Police.

Listening to the daily briefings on Covid-19 and its impact, I am struck by a number of questions and challenges that are very familiar to me from my experience in the policing and justice sector. The media is keen to push government to be transparent on outcomes, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has taken centre stage in holding the trust on ‘the most reliable’ and comprehensive data on deaths in the country.

When I arrived at the Metropolitan Police in London in 2003, I found that the Met used a range of different measures on homicide in London, each measure used internally to assess performance. Locking down a systematic way of measuring homicide was key to understanding trends, exploring changes in how people were killed, and examining ways of thinking more creatively about intervention and disruption of situations that might lead to deaths.

Homicide occasionally happens to victims at random. Far more homicides (as is true of rape and sexual assault) occur between victims and perpetrators that are known to one another. Understanding how different contexts morph and influence homicides occurring in London enables policymakers to keep an active tab on the risks of lethal harm and what contributes to these in the largest city in the UK and in Europe. How many homicides, for instance, are related to gangs or drug supply? How many of these are in the context of domestic abuse?  Who are the perpetrators and victims? Knowing more about who is killed; the contexts and the relationships between those who are killed; and people’s protected characteristics, should assist service providers and policymakers to align service with need, and to understand how better to support earlier intervention to disrupt the potential of lethal harm.

Thirty years ago, I struggled to get politicians and practitioners to see domestic abuse as a centrepiece of harm. This is no longer the case. While working for the Met and MOPAC, I harnessed information from crime reports, occasionally linking these to information on offending from the Police National Computer and full justice outcomes, tracked through decisions made by the Crown Prosecutors’ Office and through the court process. Some of these projects involved hand tracking the administrative data. Cumbersome. Clunky. Time consuming. Enlightening. These datasets enable pictures of justice that throw light on the intersection of vulnerabilities and context.

As the Data First programme progresses, I look forward to providing assistance, insight and support to bring justice information into researchers’ scope. MoJ recently hosted the first of a series of academic seminars to spark interest in using the data – virtually, in this new world – and will continue to engage with the research community. The programme will also explore ways of improving this data in the future. Let’s take the opportunity the Data First programme provides to think more creatively about how we can model better justice by harnessing administrative data.

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