Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

Yesterday it was widely reported that more than half of suspects detained on terrorism charges are released without trial. Unsurprisingly this has been latched on to by certain parts of society. Before addressing the issue of whether this data does in fact indicate a problem and what to do about it, let's first look at the reaction.

Reuters, The BBC and The Independent all quote Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, with regards to these statistics. In none of these cases are government sources quoted and in only one case (the BBC) is any other opinion mentioned and then it is that of (left-wing) Shami Chakrabarti of human rights group Liberty (we'll come back to that). So, the scene is set for some biased reporting time to find out what they said.

All the reports focus on the relatively small number of people charged. Reuters fairs best because it focuses on the fact that more than half of those arrested are later freed without charge. (652 / 1166). The BBC and The Independent, on the other hand, state that less than 1 in 20 of those arrested are charged with terror offences. True, but deliberately misleading.

While it is true that only 221 people have been charged with terrorism offences it is also true that another 186 have been charged with other offences. The BBC does give this figure but the article does not present these figures clearly. The Independent does not make any mention of it at all.

What The Independent focuses on is the statistic plucked by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), namely that only 3.5% of those arrested for terrorism have been convicted of terrorism (40/1166). This statistic serves beautifully to hide the facts. It includes those who were released without charge while ignoring those convicted of other crimes.

In fact, the proportion of those charged and convicted of terrorism to those charged is 18% (40/221). Include the number of people convicted of all crimes and we get a figure of 56.4% (226/401). If we go further and exclude from our count all those awaiting or on trial (98) we get a figure of 74.5% (226/303). This makes it quite clear that the statistic used by the IHRC and The Independent and dutifully quoted by the BBC is extremely misleading.

The statistics actually show two things: 1) A large number of offences are covered by other laws, hence the 186 convictions not under anti-terror law and 2) More than half of those arrested are released without charge. The overall conviction rate of those charged is almost three in four so the only issue here is the large number of people released without trial.

The statistics do not show how long the average person is in prison for before his release. It is possible that many of those incorrectly arrested are released within hours, possibly not. The statistics do not say which leaves us with three possibilities:

1) Most people are released within a short time, in which case there is no problem and nothing to discuss.

2)Most people are held for sometime and then released when evidence is found that they are innocent. In this case it would seem that the police are doing the correct thing. While Sir William Blackstone said, "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." it is hard to imagine that he would say "Better that ten guilty persons escape and commit mass murder than that one innocent suffer." In these times, the consequences of allowing a guilty man to escape may be far worse than those of arresting (for 28 days) an innocent man.

3) Most people are released because the police run out of time and have to let the suspect free. In this case we should surely be giving the police more time to find the evidence they need to either charge or clear the suspect.

Let's then deal with category 3 for a minute. The BBC reports:

Shami Chakrabarti said:
"Inevitably, more people are arrested than charged and more are charged than convicted, yet this is all the more reason to make sure that innocent people are not locked up for longer and longer periods in pre-charge detention."

Shami's argument is only relevant if most people fall into category 3. Assuming this is the case then we must surely agree with her that allowing people to be held for too long is not acceptable. But then, we should expect her backing for the alternative which is to allow police to continue questioning suspects after they have been charged.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mairi Clare (in the comments) for pointing out that Liberty were actually the organisation that originally made these suggestions. You can see a relevant Liberty press release here.