Caution over courts data

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The drive for greater transparency in all areas of public life during the last 20 years has transformed the way the sector operates, with organisations from Westminster down to the parish council now scrutinised as never before.

But this transfer of power into the hands of the public must always be treated responsibly and carefully.

The online maps now being published revealing how the country’s courts have dealt with offenders are a hugely valuable resource – but one that could so easily be misused or misunderstood.

The figures will hopefully lead to more consistency from the courts and help inform the community.

However, there is a complex individual case behind every one of the numbers published.

Anyone who has sat through a full trial, listened to all the evidence and heard the legal arguments will appreciate there is rarely such a thing as a black and white case of right and wrong. As such, sentences for the same offences in seemingly similar circumstances often vary dramatically.

In Yorkshire the statistics show huge regional disparities. Some are to be expected – few people would be surprised that reoffending rates in the region’s inner cities are generally higher than the more affluent areas of the countryside.

Others are harder to understand – for example why are four times as many offenders appearing at magistrates’ court sent to jail in York than Harrogate?

Simon Reevell, barrister and MP for Dewsbury, rightly warns there are dangers in comparing such statistics because they are so easily distorted by factors which are not reported.

He suggests the money would be better spent on keeping courts open, with sentencing information published in the local paper.

While this would probably be seen as a step backwards – the vast majority of people now find the internet the most user-friendly tool for obtaining information – he is correct to warn such figures could be easily misconstrued.

The data will hopefully be used by Government to consider whether there are deeper issues behind regional differences.

But we must be careful that such basic figures are not manipulated or used in isolation as the basis for change.