Reexamining the Codebook

This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.

In class the past few weeks, we have decided to reassess and rework our team’s Codebook. Up until now, the Codebook has been a relatively straightforward manual that we all follow while coding each case. Personally, my partner and I leave the Codebook open in another tab while we research a defendant – referring to it when we have specific questions about what codes make up a certain variable or how exactly a variable is defined.

For the most part, we have the Codebook memorized. Since the majority of us joined the team as the Codebook was being created and fine-tuned, we understand what each variable is looking to assess. This is not to say the Project has not come across some interpretation issues as we have worked through coding. A few weeks ago, we had a lengthy discussion about how to code cases in which the defendant was a minor at the time of the crime. Since portions of these cases, including ages of the defendant are often sealed from the public, it can be difficult to know what the actual age was. Some members of the team had been coding this variable as unknown, while others had been using 17 as a fill-in number, as our Codebook had not specified what to do in this situation. We talked in-class and decided to use 17 as our age for all minors, unless the actual age was known, in which case we would use that one.

Differing interpretations of the Codebook occur regularly, and we do our best to address them and amend the document to make each variable description even more clear. However, next semester, we are adding several new members to the Prosecution Project. These new additions will have the guidance of senior members of the team as they learn how to code, but they will still be heavily reliant on the exact wording of the Codebook to understand each variable and its codes. Because of this, the team has spent the last two classes going through each individual variable in the Codebook in extreme detail. Our goal is to phrase the Codebook so that there can be almost no room for misinterpretation. We begin by phrasing each variable as a question.

This sounds relatively straightforward and self-explanatory, but as the team and I can assure you, it is not. We have dedicated at least ten minutes to discussing how to phrase the questions for each variable, and some variables have required conversations lasting over an hour. One particularly challenging and divisive conversation occurred surrounding the variable of “previous similar crime”. We struggled with how to conceptualize what constituted a similar crime, and by the end of the discussion, we had probably run through thirty different variations of the question. Our first suggestion was, “Has the defendant been charged with a previous similar crime?” and by the end, we decided on, “Has the defendant been charged or convicted of a previous crime motivated by the same belief system?” We felt that this phrasing was the best way to encompass what we wanted to assess with this variable.

Eventually, we will have worked through this process for every variable in our Codebook. Ideally, we will have a user-friendly manual for next semester’s additions, but we are ready and willing to further adjust our Codebook as new issues arise.

– Zoe Belford

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