What do we know about serious and organised crime and how effective is our response to it? Generating new insights using criminal courts data

Categories: Blogs, ADR England, Office for National Statistics, Crime & justice

Written by Dr Tim McSweeney 26 July 2021

Serious and organised crime (SOC) is considered a national security threat by the UK Government, and protecting the public from serious offenders is one of three priority outcomes set for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) by the 2020 Spending Review. This focus reflects the considerable social and economic costs to the UK associated with SOC, recently estimated at £37 billion annually by the National Audit Office (NAO). Despite these costs, the NAO has expressed concern that government and law enforcement agencies do not yet have the extent or depth of data they need to formulate an effective response. In addition, several recent, high-profile reports by the Home Office, Police Foundation and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system’s response to different forms of SOC.  

What is the sample for the study?

SOC is a contested concept and various definitions exist. For the purposes of this project, I will  use the definition developed by a previous Home Office research study which states:

“… individuals, normally working with others, with the capacity and capability to commit serious crime on a continuing basis, which includes elements of planning, control and coordination, and benefits those involved. The motivation is often, but not always, financial gain. Some types of organised crime, such as organised child exploitation, have other motivations”
(HM Government, 2001, p5).

Based on this definition, my research will include cases in which:

  • the offence is considered to have a potential link to SOC and involved some degree of planning and control;
  • defendants were charged with an offence attracting a minimum custodial sentence of three years upon conviction; and
  • multiple defendants were charged.

What are the aims of the project?

My research aims to better understand the nature, extent and outcomes of SOC cases heard before the Crown Courts in England and Wales. Analysis of the data will provide an estimate of the proportion and number of SOC cases appearing before the higher courts and describe how SOC is distributed across different offence types (for example, violence, sexual assault, drugs, theft and cybercrime).

Using appropriate validated measures, I plan to quantify the harms caused by these SOC cases (relative to non-SOC cases) and assess whether harms are equally distributed across different offence types, SOC groups and locations. I will test for any association between SOC status and the likelihood of cases being discontinued or dismissed by the courts. Finally, I will assess the feasibility of measuring subsequent reappearances of SOC defendants before the criminal courts over time, and seek to compare these with rates for non-SOC defendants. 

Working within a secure research environment and adhering to rules that ensure the confidentiality of the data being used, the project will generate new and novel insights into:

  • the nature and extent of the threat posed by SOC cases appearing before the courts;
  • levels of crime-related harm associated with these SOC cases;
  • the attrition of cases through the trial process (and the reasons for this);
  • the nature and extent of any repeat appearances before the courts; and
  • how the courts might better respond to SOC offending.

What is the potential impact of this work?

The research will seek to inform and impact on policy through direct engagement with policymakers (for instance, by presenting findings from the research at different ADR UK and MoJ stakeholder events) and the production of accessible ADR UK and MoJ Data First outputs over the duration of the project and beyond.

In the longer term, Data First will create considerable opportunities for linking details of the SOC cases identified by this project with other datasets to fill important knowledge gaps and help address a range of government research priorities in this area. This includes exploring the social circumstances of SOC offenders, their known criminal histories and offending-related needs (for example, as they relate to thinking, attitudes, lifestyle or relationships), and identifying risk factors for involvement in SOC. These profiles can then be comparatively assessed against those of non-SOC offenders.

Both the Data First prisoner custodial journey dataset and more recent criminal courts and prisons linking data offer scope to assess the rate of custodial reconviction for SOC offenders, and using routinely published statistics to identify any associations between the presence of SOC-related prisoners and rates of violence, self-harm, or the prevalence of drugs and other contraband within individual prison establishments. Such work can generate important insights to allow us to test and measure the extent to which the presence of SOC prisoners and groups in custody may threaten the safety and security of not just the prison system, but the wider communities to which they will one day return.

You can find out more about Tim’s project, and those of other Fellows making use of the magistrates’ and Crown Court datasets, on the fellowship page.

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