The CJS under lockdown

Work with Offenders delves into the detail of the latest official data

The Ministry of Justice and the Office for National Statistics has published the first edition of its regular quarterly Criminal Justice Statistics bulletin to cover the lockdown period. The bulletin covers the year from 1 July 2019 to 30 June 2020 and the statisticians have included additional information to show the impact of the pandemic and associated lockdown in the April-June quarter of this year, during most of which the country was in full lockdown.

While the main findings are to be expected, the scale of the reduction in the number of people being dealt with by the justice system is still pretty eye-opening.

Headline findings

The number of people formally dealt with by the system dropped by a half (49%) during that lockdown quarter.

Business in the courts was hit even harder with prosecutions falling by 58% and convictions by 59% in the same period. In numerical terms, prosecutions fell from 313,600 between January to March 2020 to 130,700 between April to June 2020.

The restrictions on courts resulted in a sharp increase (44%) in outstanding cases at the magistrates’ court in April to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

The detail

As we have seen, the restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic from late March 2020 had an impact on both prosecutions and convictions in the period that followed. The most notable drop was in summary non-motoring offences, where prosecutions decreased 77% compared to the previous quarter, and convictions decreased by 79%. The fact that people were mainly at home meant a significant reduction in almost all crimes with the exception of those of domestic abuse. Summary motoring prosecutions and convictions also both fell by almost half (46% and 45%, respectively). This is, of course, to be expected since most of us were using our cars much less often, travelling much smaller distances when we did.  

The same trend was true for more serious offences. Indictable offence prosecutions decreased by over half (55%), driven by a 40% decrease in violence against the person offences and a 60% decrease in theft offences. This was echoed by indictable offence convictions, which decreased by 57%, down to a 44% fall in violence against the person and 62% decrease in theft convictions.

Longer term trends

Despite this very substantial impact of lockdown, some pre-existing trends can still be seen in the latest figures.

The proportion of people remanded in custody at Crown Court continues to grow; it was 40% over the last year, up from 36% the previous year (although this may be partly influenced by the prioritisation of offences likely to result in custody in response to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on movement).

We also keep sending people to custody for longer. There has been an unrelenting increase in the average custodial sentence length (ACSL) over the last decade where it has risen to 19.5 months for all offences and 22 months for indictable offences over the latest period. This rise mainly reflects the growing proportion in the number of people sentenced to prison for more serious offences as well as a raft of legislation setting harsher penalties for a range of crimes. The increased number of prosecutions for serious sexual offences (often crimes against children of a historical nature) has also pushed the average length of prison sentences up. Again, the further increase may be partly influenced by the prioritization of more serious offences during the pandemic.

There is also a trend in the opposite direction with the number of defendants given an immediate custodial sentence of less than six months down to 31,400, 16% less than in the year ending June 2019, having continually decreased since 2012. Of course much of this latest fall is also attributable to the pandemic, since the less serious crimes committed by this cohort were de-prioritised by the courts during lockdown.

Looking ahead

It will be increasingly difficult to discern criminal justice trends in the next year or two. We should expect a rise in most of these figures for the next quarter when lockdown was eased, followed, perhaps, by another fall reflecting the current lockdown, although this one is, of course, currently expected to last for only a month.

The impact of other changes will be difficult to discern, there has been a recent increase in police numbers, but at the same time many police officers are spending a considerable proportion of their time on coronavirus-related matters while a significant proportion at any one time will be required to self-isolate.

We will continue to keep you up-to-date here on work with offenders.