Perhaps nothing illustrates the intersection between the past and the present more aptly than digital history. Advances in digital technology and new media hold the potential to transform the way historical research is conducted and, in the process, our understanding of both the past and present. The Digital Panopticon – a recent conference convened in Hobart, Tasmania – exemplified the quiet revolution underway in the humanities.
The conference presentations were a testament to the way in which modern technology can be utilised to preserve, research, and understand the history of crime and punishment and the experiences of the individuals who lived these phenomena. Ambitious large-scale digitisation projects from around the world were well represented in the program – the Digital Panopticon, Founders and Survivors, the Prosecution Project, and the Carceral Archipelago.
The conference represented a milestone for the Prosecution Project, with members of the research team presenting the first collective roundtable since the project’s inception in 2013. The Prosecution Project is digitising Australian court records from the 1830s to the 1960s and, serendipitously, the roundtable coincided with the entry of the 100,000th trial record in the online open-source database. A later version of the Digital Panopticon roundtable was presented at the Queensland Supreme Court in celebration of this second milestone (a recording can be seen here).
The Prosecution Project roundtable explored the Australian trial process from beginning to end, with a focus on some of its important actors and decision-makers. It challenged some long-standing ideas in the historical and criminological literature and highlighted the potential of digital history to reimagine and clarify our understanding of the past.
PhD scholar Lisa Durnian opened the substantive discussion with an exploration of the evolution of the guilty plea. Representing a fundamental shift in the adversarial legal system, the rapid rise of the guilty plea in the mid-20th century is often attributed to an increase in plea-bargaining between prosecutors and defence lawyers at trial. However, Lisa found that from 1941 most guilty pleas were entered at the committal hearing, raising the interesting probability that factors aside from plea-bargaining were at play within the Australian legal system.
Project Leader Mark Finnane explored the role of lawyers in the trial process, showcasing the potential of the Prosecution Project to provide quantitative data in a hitherto speculative research area. Prospective research questions encompassed the effect of lawyers on judicial conduct, how the rights of defendants were shaped by lawyering, and the different tactics employed by lawyers throughout the trial process. Additional findings presented in another paper with Research Fellow Alana Piper indicated that legal representation bestowed significant advantages, including an increased likelihood of acquittal, receiving bail, and favourable sentencing outcomes (e.g. bond, suspended sentence, or probation).
Alana Piper focused on the more anonymous decision-makers within trials – the jury. She questioned whether the increasingly common criticisms of juries expressed by members of the justice system across the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were justified. Trial by jury was often an unwieldy and less-than-ideal process: delivering verdicts encumbered by various biases and in other instances failing to deliver verdicts at all, with almost ten per cent of trials resulting in jury disagreements in some years.
Research Fellow Yorick Smaal considered the nature of legal evidence beyond the usual doctrinal endeavours. Focusing on witnesses in sex offence trials in Queensland from 1870 to 1930, Yorick found that despite an increase in the average number of witnesses per trial across the period, around half of the accused were consistently convicted regardless of the number of witnesses who testified against them. This suggests that quality rather than quantity of witnesses was important to trial outcomes. Nonetheless, a greater number of witnesses in trials involving female and child complainants points to disparities in moral surveillance, policing, and perceptions of complainants.
PhD scholar Robyn Blewer challenged the conventional view of objective and predictable judge craft. The digitised prosecution data facilitated an easy comparison of all known criminal cases presided over by two well-known Australian judges between 1925 and 1939 – Queensland’s Justice Brennan (352 cases) and Chief Justice Webb (234 cases). Even though media reports indicated that the two judges shared a progressive approach to sentencing, Robyn found that the judges handed down significantly different sentences. Brennan, for example, was far more likely to hand down non-custodial and alternative sentences (e.g. convicted but released).
Finally, Research Fellow Andy Kaladelfos explored sentencing patterns in more detail, focusing on the effect of victimisation on sentencing outcomes in sex offence trials. In particular, Andy was interested in the mid-20th century rise in non-custodial sentences, as this trend does not accord with historical scholarship that characterises the sex offence sentences in the period as punitive. Andy found that these non-custodial sentences were primarily used in cases involving adolescent female complainants and homosexual males – although why judges were more lenient in these cases is the topic of future qualitative work.
The digitisation of archival material clearly opens up new avenues for questions, analysis, and interpretation of crime and punishment across history. Of course, digital history is not just about big data. The conference also highlighted forays into digital history beyond such projects, for example, POWs during the South African Boer War (Chris Holdridge and Matthew Kennedy), digital matching of cross-Tasman convicts (Raewyn Dalziel), and digital (re)constructions of penal sites of significance such as Port Puer in Tasmania (Martin Gibbs, David Roe, Richard Tuffin, and John Stephenson) and Bentham’s Panopticon (Zoe Alker and Nick Webb).
Importantly, digital history not only helps us come to new or richer understandings of crime and punishment, but it also permanently preserves a record of the past and makes history accessible to people who may never venture into an archive. Through the use of online open-source databases and new media, digital history can (re)introduce people to the story of their ancestors, their communities and countries, and, ultimately, humankind.
The Prosecution Project, Griffith Criminology Institute