Reported by Anthony Lindley, CSaP Policy Intern (February-May 2021)
How can data be effectively and ethically used to improve outcomes within the justice system and influence legislation to reduce rates of reoffending? What are the ‘red lines’ for data collection and sharing and how do the rights of incarcerated individuals balance with the public interest?
On the 18th of February 2021, the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) hosted a professional development seminar for Cambridge PhD students from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Forming the third instalment of the ‘Being Heard’ Policy Seminar Series, the students were joined by CSaP Policy Fellows Ciara Jevon (Head of Data Innovation in HM Courts and Tribunals Service) and Dr Philip Howard (Head of Offender Insight for the Ministry of Justice). Throughout the seminar, panellists shared their insight into career trajectories within the justice field and explored questions and challenges that students considering work within the justice system would be likely to encounter throughout their careers.
Throughout the event, Ms Jevon examined the historical and contemporary challenges regarding data collection, sharing and processing within the UK criminal justice system and presented the academic collaborations she has been involved with from within government. In discussing the efforts made by her department to ensure careful and transparent use of data collected from individuals moving through the court systems, Jevon stressed the role of partnerships between civil servants and academic researchers from across quantitative and qualitative disciplines, noting that: “more engagement with academia and external partners can help… to build public trust and engage more with those conversations.”
Meanwhile, Dr Howard’s presentation focused on both the technical and government-facing aspects of his career, exploring his projects on algorithm development and data analytics before examining how the insights these have generated have been applied to policy and budgetary decisions. He highlighted several academic collaborations with which he has been involved including regional, national and international partnerships, and again stressed the importance of the civil service working closely with researchers to improve its services, offer new insights and enable cross-pollination of ideas and technical ability.
Students questioned the speakers on their experience of navigating the complex interaction between politicians, professionals, prisoners and the public in their work. Dr Howard emphasised the challenges inherent in working with offenders’ data- the difficulty of generating statistically rigorous insights, of identifying ‘control groups’ with which to compare the effectiveness of certain treatments and the importance of accepting and moving on from failed programmes.
Both speakers underlined the significance of qualitative research in tandem with traditional numerical data analysis, drawing on their involvement with interview-based programmes seeking to improve the experience of participants within the justice system from probation officers to offenders and their families. This theme was continued within the first of two PhD students’ presentations, with Prisons Research Centre doctoral student Sophie Ellis, presenting her work within the FAIR Study (The Families and Imprisonment Research Study) and experience investigating the impact of family ties both on offenders and on the families themselves.
The final presentation was delivered by Dora Robinson, a doctoral candidate within the Faculty of Law. Ms Robinson focused on her research developing an evidence-based understanding of the relationship between the UK courts system and the European Court of Human Rights and what has influenced the UK’s compliance with adverse ECHR judgements. In discussing their own experiences of the benefits and challenges of working with criminal justice data, both PhD students reinforced the invited speakers’ focus on effective and ethical data collection and processing within such a sensitive field.