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Researchers Analyze Almost 200,000 Trials in Britain to Study Crime

Old Bailey

Court reporters in England would write detailed accounts of every trial held at the Central Criminal Court, referred to as the Old Bailey, according to the New York Times. This court would hear trials for all major criminal cases in Greater London.

There are an estimated 121 million words about 197,000 trials spanning 239 years. Researchers claim that this is the largest existing body of trial evidence for historical crime.

Scientists have performed computational analysis on the documents and are able to show how the British justice system was able to create new practices for controlling violence. The study is called “The Civilizing Process in London’s Old Bailey.”

Dr. Simon DeDeo of Indiana University, said, “What happens when we inflict harm on each other is the most interesting question of criminal law, but the volume of data coming out the system is incomprehensible.”



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Dr. DeDeo collaborated on the project.

“It’s a little bit like the big-sky surveys in astronomy. Instead of looking at individually interesting galaxies, we could look at hundreds of thousands of galaxies to change our scope of vision.”

In order to discover patterns in the reports, the researchers looked at when and how specific words were present in the reports.

“Say you walk into a trial in 1750 and pick out one word,” Dr. DeDeo said. “How much can you learn about what the trial is about? If you hear the word ‘kick,’ you might associate it with violence, but you could not be certain. But by 1850, if you hear the word ‘kick,’ you would know a lot about what the bureaucracy was going to do. With the passage of time, each word carries more information based on accumulating trial data. And this is what we can quantify.”

The transcripts from Old Bailey ended in 1913 due to publication costs and newspapers taking over the role of covering trials.

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