Understanding probation and justice data – notes from a @bhamdatablog meetup

At a recent Birmingham Datablog meetup we hosted probation data analyst Jason Davies, who very generously spent time highlighting the mistakes that journalists should avoid in reporting the justice system, and useful resources for finding both data and context on crime and justice.

Jason began by making an important distinction between crime data and justice data. Crime data is typically handled by individual police forces and the Home Office.

Once someone is charged, however, they enter the justice system. Information about what happens next – in the courts, the prisons, community service and on probation – is handled by the Ministry of Justice and other related bodies.

Pre court disposal” refers to what a police officer decides to do when they first encounter a possible crime. This might include:

  • Arrest
  • Charge
  • Spot fine
  • Caution
  • Slap on wrist

This can obviously vary between areas or times (where different policies might be in place, for example a ‘zero tolerance’ approach), and even officers.

The justice system begins

Once someone is charged, appears in court, and is sentenced, there will be a ‘court disposal‘ or court outcome‘ and we are now in the territory of the Ministry of Justice. Options include:

  • Suspended sentence order: this means the offender is given a prison sentence but not actually being put into custody immediately, i.e. they are allowed to walk from court. However, they are subject to probation supervision (reporting to a probation officer at specific times) and possibly other requirements.
  • Deferred sentence order: this is rare, but similar to a suspended sentence order. Put simply, the court wants to wait a while before deciding on the sentence, usually to see what the defendent does or doesn’t do. In the meantime, unlike a suspended sentence they are not subject to any probation supervision in the meantime.
  • Custodial sentence: the offender is sent to prison. (known as “immediate custodial sentence” in the jargon).
  • Fines
  • Conditional discharge: if the offender reappears in court within a specified period they will get more serious punishment. However, they do not report to a probation officer. It is at the court’s discretion as to what happens if they reoffend and reappear in court. A
  • Unconditional discharge
  • Community order: typically 6, 12 or 24 months, this is a sentence served in the community. Normally there are one or more ‘requirements‘, such as unpaid work (community payback/service, run by the Probation Service); supervision (which is with the Probation Service); DRR (Drug Rehabilitation Requirement – sometimes provided by external suppliers); alcohol treatment; or curfew (where the offender has to wear a tag and abide by certain conditions, for instance staying within the house on days or times where they might previously have become involved in violent activity)

‘On probation’

Jason was at particular pains to emphasise that offenders are never ‘let out early’, despite press reports often using the phrase.

Typically any sentence longer than 12 months includes half of the sentence being served in jail, and the other half ‘on licence‘ (i.e. on probation). This means that the offender is not ‘free’: their life outside of prison is subject to particular requirements, in particular attending regular appointments with a probation officer.

If the offender breaches the terms of probation (for example by missing a scheduled supervision appointment with a probation officer) then they can be ‘recalled‘ – that is, brought back into prison.

Only offenders released from prison (i.e. ex-prisoners) can be on licence (pre-release and post-release licence are the technical terms).

Offenders doing community service are also ‘on probation’ with requirements which may be the same as for ex-prisoners, e.g. supervision, alcohol treatment requirement etc.

The Open Justice website is particularly good at explaining some of the distinctions within the sentencing system, among other characteristics of the justice system.

Those on sentences of less than 12 months, however, do not go on probation. This group has a particularly high reoffending rate (60%), which many argue is because they do not have access to the support that probation provides.


The probation system has two broad responsibilities:

  • Public protection: particularly around high risk offenders (e.g. sex offenders, child sex offenders) and serious crimes. Probation here is focused on managing those offenders to prevent further crimes.
  • Reducing reoffending: this includes PPO (prolific and priority offenders) who are costly and have a high risk of reoffending, but whose crimes may not be as harmful as others (e.g. shoplifting), but also those offenders who are not prolific

Probation is particularly interested in identifying the ‘Criminogenic needs‘ of offenders: what makes that person commit crime, and the factors that need addressing in their lifestyle and/or personality. These include:

  • Accommodation, such as homelessness or no fixed abode
  • Substance misuse (including alcohol)
  • Employment
  • Mental health

The data here is concerned with identifying how effective probation is: “what proportion are we managing to get to abstain from reoffending?” This is particularly important because it costs around £40,000 per year to keep in prison, but only £3000 for a community order. But different issues come with different costs: drug rehab, for example, is more expensive than other options.

Where is the data?

The Ministry of Justice publishes a lot of data at its statistical site justice.gov.uk/statistics on the following:

  • Civil justice, including home repossession
  • Conviction history of offenders
  • Coroners’ reports (inquests, preventing future deaths)
  • Court procedures (time taken by cases, penalties issued, ineffective and cracked trials, including family matters, magistrates courts, crown court)
  • Gender (under criminal justice and sentencing)
  • Knife crime (under criminal justice and sentencing)
  • Probation
  • Prisons
  • Race (under criminal justice and sentencing)
  • Reoffending
  • Sentencing
  • Sex offending (under criminal justice and sentencing)
  • Tribunals (including social security, child support and employment tribunals)
  • Youth justice

In the case of the Birmingham Mail reoffending story, the data was already publicly available and shouldn’t have required an FOI request.

A publication schedule setting out future data releases – with an email alert facility – can be found atjustice.gov.uk/statistics/statistics-publication-schedule

For crime data it is best to check the Home Office and local police forces. The British Crime Survey, for example, records perception of crime, reporting of crime, and the effectiveness of police forces by their clearup rates (how many crimes are disposed of, including where the person reporting withdrew the report). You can find it on the ONS site and an explanation of its methodology is available at the Home Officewebsite.

Useful guides on crime statistics are also available from the Home Office (PDF) and from the Office for National Statistics (PDF). A guide for statistics in Northern Ireland can be found on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) site. For more on opening up justice data, Will Perrin has written about the MOJ’s Transparency Panel.

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