Exploring defendant appearance(s) in the magistrates’ and Crown Court over time: specialisation, or (de-)escalation

A defendant enters the court room at the magistrates’ or Crown Court, will they return? And if they do, when and what for?

In 2020 the magistrates’ courts in England and Wales received approximately 1.1 million criminal cases and the Crown Courts received 96,000 criminal cases. Cases across both the magistrates’ and Crown Courts at this scale can present us with a complex web of crimes which may contain multiple defendants or the same defendant across multiple crimes. Understanding how often and why defendants re-enter the court room will enable us to share findings with policy makers and practitioners with a view to tackling criminality leading to return to court.

The Data First programme provides us a first-time opportunity to look at defendants’ use of the courts, using linked, de-identified administrative datasets to match defendants and cases in the magistrates’ and Crown Courts. This gives us the opportunity to gain a broader view of defendants across multiple tiers of the courts. It is also an opportunity to investigate repeated use of the courts, regardless of the outcome.

What are the methods and aims of my project?

The aim of this project is to better understand the scale and pattern of repeat court use. I will use the approach often used to analyse the risk of repeat heart attacks or strokes, focusing on the time from when a defendant is first observed in the magistrates’ and/or Crown Court to when they return (if they do).

After an overview of the general risk of return, I will dissect the research to find out what may influence a greater or lesser risk of repeat court use, with specific focus on the offence type and severity.  In these analyses, I will include characteristics of the defendant, such as their age, sex and ethnicity, as well as characteristics of the court which could include the mode of trial (summary only or indictable only), the plea given, the number of co-defendants, and whether the case was committed to the Crown Court.

Understanding the association between defendant, case and courts with repeated usage will be the first step to effectively reduce repeat offending. Each point of contact with offenders, be that with police, the courts, or non-government organisations, is an opportunity to prevent further crime in the future. Discovering the attributes of the defendant and/or case that are associated with greater risk of returning to the magistrates’ will enable timely and effective interventions.

My next step will be to  compare repeat defendants’  first and second cases to determine how and why defendants are returning. I will specifically focus on changes in the offence type as a way of analysing different criminal career trajectories. Same as before, the characteristics of the defendant, case and court(s) will be part of this step too.  This stage of analysis will bring light to the factors associated with returning for the same offence; those associated with an escalating criminal career; and where the severity of the offence increases; and conversely, identify factors associated with the de-escalation of a criminal career, for example associated with the “growing out” of crime among young adults.

What is the potential impact of this work?

This project will enable greater knowledge and understanding that could be of considerable benefit to policy makers and practitioners associated with the criminal justice system. Preventing crime that leads to a return to court is a major national concern and research which helps to inform policy and practice development delivers benefits for multiple stakeholders: the public, professionals, and of course defendants themselves and their families. Repeat criminal justice involvement incurs serious costs for all concerned, which are economic and also human or social.

Those working in the courts will gain a greater understanding of defendants’ use of the courts and will therefore be able to better meet the needs of their users. Understanding the characteristics of users may improve case management and sentencing decisions for individuals. For example, the peak age of crime is under the age of 25 therefore young adults may “grow out” of crime, which should be supported at all stages of criminal justice involvement. Equally shedding further light on unanswered questions about differing criminal career patterns of men and women will be beneficial for all stakeholders. Those working in probation services and non-government support services must also have a keen understanding of patterns of return to court in order to deliver effective preventative and rehabilitative services of crime. Insight derived from this research could also help the police generate a profile of risk over time, informing their understanding of the prevention of re-offending.

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