Reconviction Rates in Scotland: 2020-21 Offender Cohort

Statistics on reconvictions are presented up to the latest cohort of 2020-21. The latest year’s data is impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and should not be interpreted to be indicative of longer term trends.

4. Background

Statistics are presented on the number of individuals who were released from a custodial sentence or given a non-custodial sentence in 2020-21 and then subsequently reconvicted within a year, along with selected trends. This is the second time reconviction statistics have been published where the cohort period overlaps with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect the pandemic had on an offender being reconvicted depends on when they entered the cohort. For example, if an offender is released from custody and therefore joins the cohort at the start of this period (April 2020), then the follow up period would be during the COVID-19 restrictions. Compare this to an offender entering the cohort in March 2021, where the follow up year after this will be less affected by COVID-19 restrictions.

The impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on these statistics means we would advise heavy caution in using the data presented in this publication. As a result, the data for the 2020-21 cohort is not indicative of longer-term trends. One reason this cohort has been affected by COVID-19 is the change in case processing times during the pandemic, as shown in the Journey Times publication. Due to the processing times remaining above pre-COVID levels, these statistics include additional data on previous convictions within 10 years, if any, of those who offended in 2021-22. This measure should be used alongside the one-year reconviction rate to give a full picture of those reoffending. As Journey Times are dependent on court type, and therefore severity of crime, this publication goes further in highlighting the different reconviction picture by crime type where direction comparison between crime type is caveated.

When comparing to reconviction rates of the 2019-20 cohort, it is worth noting throughout that

i. The 2020-21 cohort size is much reduced. This is expected as those who offend in 2019-20 are unaffected by COVID-19 at this point, whereas the subsequent 2020-21 will be more affected.

ii. The follow up period for the 2020-21 cohort will be less affected by COVID-19 restrictions that that of the 2019-20 cohort.

iii. The shift in court types to deal with the backlog of cases led to a higher number of summary courts, leading to potentially more cases going through the justice system.

These two factors result in caution being needed when comparing the two latest years.

This publication presents information on reconvictions and repeat non-court disposals for cohorts of offenders from 1997-98 up to the latest cohort of 2020-21, as well as previous convictions of those who have offended in 2021-22. Cohorts include offenders with an ‘index conviction’ or ‘index non-court disposal’ in the particular financial year.

  • Section one of this publication presents reconviction statistics for offenders with court convictions.
  • Section two covers repeat instances of individuals dealt with outside of court (non-court disposals).
  • Section three presents analyses of reconviction rates by local authority.

4.1 Recidivism and reconvictions

Recidivism is where someone has committed an offence and received some form of criminal justice sanction and goes on to commit another offence. Measuring recidivism is important, as it is one indicator of the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in the rehabilitation of offenders. Reconviction rates are a proxy measure for recidivism, as not all offending comes to the attention of the police, and not all offences committed or recorded by the police will necessarily result in a conviction (see Annex A1).

4.2 The Scottish justice system

Scotland’s criminal justice system uses a variety of interventions at each stage of the offender’s journey. This system is summarised in the Audit Scotland report (An Overview of Scotland’s Criminal Justice System) and is shown in Chart 2. Not all offences reported to the police result in a conviction. Reoffending is not the same as reconviction, as the intervention of the criminal justice system takes place between these two events. Reconvictions can be affected by many different factors that are not necessarily related to the incidence of crime.

Chart 1 : An offender’s journey through the criminal justice system

Scotland’s criminal justice system comprises of many processes and is delivered by a range of bodies and individuals, with different possible outcomes at each stage.

Justice Overview. Flow diagram showing an offender's possible journey chronologically (crime, arrest and charge, court, sentencing, and then serving sentence). Coloured borders around the boxes signify the different bodies typically involved at that stage in the process (these are Police, COPFS, Scottish Court Service, Judiciary, CJSW, Scottish Prison Service, Parole Board, and Defence solicitors).

(Source: Audit Scotland 2011 An overview of Scotland’s criminal justice system)

Note that this does not show Recorded Police Warnings that were introduced in 2016

4.3 Index convictions: the reference convictions that reconvictions are measured from

For part of the analyses in this bulletin, we measure reconvictions given by a court for a cohort of offenders within a follow-up period of one year after a conviction given by a court. A cohort is defined as all the offenders that may have been released from a custodial sentence (see Annex A7), or given a non-custodial sentence, in a specified financial year. For example, the 2020-21 cohort is the group of offenders who were released from a custodial sentence, or were given a non-custodial sentence, between the 1st April 2020 and the 31st March 2021 (See Annex Table A1 and Annex A5). In this bulletin, for brevity, the cohort may be referred to by its year alone, for example 2020-21.

The “index conviction” is the reference conviction given by a court which is determined by either:

(a) the estimated release date for a custodial sentence imposed for the conviction, or

(b) the sentence date for non-custodial sentences imposed for the conviction.

For an individual offender, whichever conviction had the earliest of these dates in a given financial year is defined as their index conviction.

The crime which resulted in the index conviction is the “index crime”, and the sentence given for the index conviction is the “index disposal”. (See Annex Table A1 and Annex A5 for definitions and more details).

4.4 Measures of reconviction: the reconviction rate

The reconviction rate is presented as the percentage of offenders in the cohort who were reconvicted one or more times by a court within a specified follow up period from the date of the index conviction. For most reconviction analyses in this bulletin, the follow-up period is one year, except for Table 14 where a two year follow up period is presented. For example, the 2020-21 reconviction rate is 26.9% (Table 1). This means just under a quarter of offenders were reconvicted at least once in the year period following either a non-custodial conviction or release from a custodial sentence in 2020-21. The definitions in Annex Table A1 provide more details about the terminology used in this publication.

4.5 Measures of reconviction: average number of reconvictions per offender

The reconviction rate provides an indication of progress in tackling overall offender recidivism. This measure, however, may not be sensitive enough to detect individual-level progress as a result of interventions and programmes in the criminal justice system. Such programmes may have been successful in reducing the number of times offenders are reconvicted, but not completely desisting from committing crimes. This bulletin provides a more detailed analysis of reconvictions by also reporting the complementary measure of the average number of reconvictions per offender.

The average number of reconvictions per offender is a measure of the number of times that offenders in a cohort are reconvicted within the follow-up period. It is the mean average, calculated as the total number of reconvictions of all the offenders in the cohort, divided by the total number of offenders in the cohort. For example, the average number of reconvictions per offender for the 2020-21 cohort in one year is 0.44 (Table 1). This means that, on average, offenders have under half a reconviction in a one year follow up period. It should be noted that this measure is an average, and there may be variation in the number of reconvictions that individual offenders have: for example, any group may include offenders with no reconvictions and offenders with multiple reconvictions.

4.6 Repeat non-court disposals

This bulletin also presents the repeat non-court disposal rate and the average number of repeat non-court disposals per individual. People may be given a non-court disposal, a direct measure issued by the police or Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal (COPFS), rather than the case proceeding to court (see Section 2 for further detail).

The repeat non-court disposal rate is analogous to the reconviction rate, and is the proportion of people who receive a non-court disposal and go on to receive another non-court disposal within a year. The average number of repeat non-court disposals per individual, is analogous to the average number of reconvictions. It is a measure of the number of times that a cohort of individuals receive non-court disposals after being given a non-court disposal.

The cohort for non-court disposals is defined as the group of people who receive a non-court disposal, such as a fine or warning, from the police or COPFS in a given financial year. The first non-court disposal in the year is counted as the index non-court disposal, and subsequent non-court disposals given to the individuals within a year are counted as repeat non-court disposals.

Note that court convictions are not included in the repeat non-court disposals, and non-court disposals are not counted towards reconvictions. This is because the court conviction dataset is independent of the non-court disposal dataset. For example, if someone was convicted in court and given a community sentence and were later given a warning by the police, the warning would not be counted as a reconviction. The warning would be counted as an index non-court disposal if it was the first non-court disposal they received in a financial year. However, it would be counted as a repeat non-court disposal if they had already received another non-court disposal in the financial year.

4.7 Data Source: The Scottish Offenders Index

Information on reconvictions presented in this bulletin is derived from the Scottish Offenders Index (SOI), which is derived from a subset of the Criminal Proceedings in Scotland dataset. The SOI contains all convictions in court since 1989 where the main offence involved was either a crime in Groups 1-5 of the Scottish Government’s classification of crimes, or some of the offences in Group 6. See Annex D of the Criminal Proceedings Bulletin for further information about these classification groups. Minor offences, such as drunkenness and the majority of vehicle offences, are excluded from the SOI. This data source is also used in Section four to calculate the number and type of previous convictions, which looks back in time at conviction history before the index conviction, as opposed to reconvictions which look at convictions after the index conviction.

A separate dataset in the SOI also contains information on non-court disposals given by the police and COPFS since 2008. This contains non-court disposals given for all crimes and offences, including motor vehicle offences.

The court convictions and non-court disposals are held in separate datasets by the Scottish Government and so are independent of each other and analysed separately in this bulletin.

See Annex B1, Annex B3, and Annex 17 for more details.

4.8 Impact of COVID restrictions on the Justice system and these statistics

Offenders in the 2020-21 cohort covers reoffending between April 2020 and March 2022, depending on when the offender joined the cohort. This means these figures cover the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of this across the justice system. Whilst it is not yet possible to isolate the impact of the pandemic on the data, it is reasonable to conclude that the latest data is predominantly a reflection of the impact of the pandemic across the justice system and should not be interpreted as indicative of longer-term trends. This message applies to all of the statistics presented in this publication, even if not explicitly stated in every instance to avoid repetition.

Whilst this publication focuses predominantly on court and out-of-court measures for dealing with offending, the pandemic affected all parts of the justice system. These figures reflect, to varying degrees, the impact of the pandemic across all parts of the system. These include but are not limited to; changes in offending behaviour and the types of crime reported to and recorded by the police; case processing times and prioritisation by COPFS and SCTS; and changes in court capacity and the types of court available for cases to be heard.

This is the second year that reconviction data impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic has been published. The 2020-21 cohort size is notably lower than previous years, and this is the first year that entering the cohort has been impacted by the pandemic. The follow up period, up to March 2022 depending on when an offender entered the cohort, saw less COVID-19 restrictions than the previous publication. However, case processing times are still affected by the pandemic, as shown in the Journey Times publication.

This publication has previously focused on reconvictions within one year of entering the cohort, and in part continues to do so this year. As this is a time sensitive measure, the Journey Times publication gives further detail on the impact of COVID on case processing and therefore reconviction rates. Because of this, additional data has been provided on previous convictions of those who offended in 2021-22, broken down by crime type. This new measure should be used alongside the one-year reconviction rate to have a full understanding of the current reconvictions picture. Further information on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Justice System in Scotland, including information from Police Scotland, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, courts and prisons is provided in the Justice Analytical Services monthly data report.

4.9 Plans for Reconviction statistics post-publication

This is the first time additional information has been published on previous convictions of those convicted in 2021-22. We would welcome feedback from users on this and will provide any relevant updates via our usual channels.



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