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Setting re-offending data free

A prisoner released from a prison in England and Wales has a one in two chance of being reconvicted within a year.

The UK prison population over the past twenty years has risen to over 85,000.

The overall cost of crime to UK society is estimated at £64bn per year.

We’re not short of data illustrating the problem of re-offending in this country, and the economic and human cost it entails. However when it comes to the solutions to this problem the evidence is rather thin on the ground. We know that government, charities and social enterprises can help by providing offenders with the right support. But how do we know what  ‘right support’ looks like? To be clear about what works to reduce re-offending—and avoid decisions based on instinct or anecdote—those working in criminal justice need access to evidence about which approaches are successful.

This is where the problem lies. In our new report Unlocking offending data, we outline the results of a survey we ran in collaboration with Clinks of 236 criminal justice charities’ need for, and attitude to, data on reoffending. It transpires that currently their access to information depends upon their relationship with local police forces, prison or probation trusts.  Around half had attempted to access offending data, but only a fifth were successful every time. Four in five found the process of accessing data hard some or all of the time.

It is crucial for these services to be able to measure their impact however, both so they can learn what works and fine tune their services appropriately, and also in order to impress commissioners. This latter point is set to become all the more important as commissioning in the criminal justice sector shifts towards a payment by results model, as recently indicated by the secretary of state for justice Chris Grayling.

In the absence of hard data many charities measure the impact of their work based on soft outcomes (like confidence) but struggle to establish whether or not they really reduce re-offending. Small charities find it especially hard to evidence their achievements, but if they get squeezed out in the new commissioning system we risk losing the valuable insights they bring from their grass roots work.

Off the back of this report NPC is calling on the Ministry of Justice to create a Justice Data Lab to provide a national system for accessing offending data. Charities would submit details of offenders they have worked with to a team of analysts at the Lab, who would then return the re-offending rate of the whole group. In this way, charities could see whether they had reduced re-offending, without revealing individual offenders’ identity.

Asked about the prospect of this Lab most respondents to our survey said they felt it would help them improve services, report impact to commissioners and win payment by results contracts. The Lab would also bring benefits to the government as if it lead to improved commissioning this could reduce costs and deliver better value for money.

A respondent to the Unlocking offending data survey said:

‘Re-offending is the outcome that we are all seeking to address. If we cannot access [the Justice Data Lab] we end up having to rely on soft or proxy measures of re-offending. This is often then seen as the voluntary and community sector failing to develop robust outcome measures.’

It is clear that there is both a need and an appetite for the Justice Data Lab, and we’re hoping that the Ministry of Justice recognises the benefits it would brings and gives it the green light.

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