Latest prison and probation trends

Work with Offenders takes a deep dive into the latest official statistics

The Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and the Office for National Statistics all publish a range of quarterly and annual statistical bulletins on a wide range of issues affecting the criminal justice system.

The latest editions of a number of these statistical resources were published at the end of July and are likely to be particularly important in terms of keeping us abreast of the latest trends in the criminal justice system since they cover the period up to the lockdowns imposed both in the community and in our prisons as a result of coronavirus. It is likely that the figures in the next few editions will be so distorted by our response to the pandemic that it will make analysis much more precarious. So, what have we learnt?

Prison statistics

Overall, the prison population has been pretty steady over the last two to three years. Although there was a dramatic drop of over 3,000 prisoners in the first three months of lockdown, the prison population has now stabilised and is slowly starting to rise again. The reason for this fall is not the coronavirus early release scheme which has seen a total of just 226 individuals released ahead of their original date in the period up to 31st July, but the massive reduction in the number of cases being heard by our courts. As the courts get back to work, we should see the population return to its pre-COVID level.

However, this apparent stability hides a number of interesting themes. The number of people being sent to prison continues to fall (it was down 3% in the first quarter of this year compared to 2019). However, the number of people being released from prison is falling even faster – that figure was down 5% compared to 2019. Both these trends result from changes in the make-up of the prison population with a growing proportion of people serving longer sentences. Another increasingly significant contributor to our high prison population is the continuing rise in the number of people recalled to prison for breaching their licence conditions after their release. There were 6,690 licence recalls between January and March 2020, an 8% annual rise in the first quarter of 2020. There usually is more than one reason for recalling an offender on licence.,although it is interesting to note that only about 4 in 10 recalls involved the offender recalled for facing further charges. Non-compliance was given as one of the reasons for recall in about 7 out of 10 recalls in January-March 2020.

One interesting nugget of information that work with offenders found in the just published HMPPS annual digest for 2019/20 was that more people escaped from prison last year. The overall figure is still low – just 16 individuals. However, the MoJ calculate that almost 2000 (1,935) people who were released on licence and recalled custody in the last 20 years are still at large community. How many of these have died or are living abroad is uncertain.

The recent pandemic and associated lockdown in our prisons has thrown a spotlight on conditions in custody. Despite all the announcements of new prison building programmes, the level of overcrowding in our penal institutions actually got worse last year. In the year ending this March, more than one in five (21.8%) prisoners were held in crowded conditions – that’s 18,762 individuals who are sharing cells meant for one person.

Probation figures

The total number of offenders on probation (a figure which includes both court orders and people supervised on release from prison) continues to fall. There were just under one quarter of a million (241,350) people supervised by probation at the end of March this year – a significant fall of 5% compared to the figure last year. The number of offenders supervised on court orders fell by 9% and the number of offenders supervised on release from prison fell by 3%.

As most readers will know, the Justice Secretary recently announced that the 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies, responsible for supervising lower medium risk offenders, will not have their contracts renewed next summer. This is not altogether surprising when you know that these 21 CRCs missed 14/18 targets at a national level in the last quarter. Although this overall figure is pretty damning, it does hide significantly better performance by a minority of CRCs.

Looking ahead

It is very likely that the next set of statistical bulletins will present a very different picture, as the impact of coronavirus starts to show up in the figures. We will continue to keep you informed, of course.