Prison numbers expected to surge

Experts are predicting that increases in police numbers will start having an impact on prison numbers from this December. Work with Offenders examines the detail

Given the very difficult challenges to public finances in the wake of coronavirus (and Brexit), many people were surprised to hear Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that he was going to find £4 billion to spend on building new prisons (with 18,000 prison places) “by the mid-2020s”.

It is clear that one of the reasons for this is the government’s desire to stimulate the post-Covid economy by investing in infrastructure spending. However, the second reason became clear today when the Ministry of Justice published its prison population projections for the next six years. The conclusions are startling, to say the least.

Over the 6-year projection horizon the prison population is projected to increase to 98,700 by September 2026. This is in large part a result of the recruitment of an extra 20,000 police officers, which is likely to increase charge volumes and therefore increase the future prison population. To put this in context, the prison population last Friday (20 November) stood at 78,741 – a total fall of 4,336 individuals compared to 31st January, the date of the first death by coronavirus in the UK. It is expected that this rapid drop will be reversed when the courts finally catch up with the backlog of cases which already existed before the pandemic but which has been significantly exacerbated by the lockdown restrictions. Even though new temporary courts “Nightingale Courts” were introduced back in June, there is still no sense of any progress at all in tackling the backlog – indeed, last week’s prison population represented a further drop of 127 on the previous week. This decline in the numbers in prison has been constant for the last seven months.

The recruitment of an additional 20,000 police officers – quite simply, having more police will result in more arrests, convictions and, for a minority, prison sentences – is seen as the main factor in pushing up prison numbers. The experts are predicting that increases in police numbers will start having an impact on prison numbers from this December.  However, the statisticians have also factored in the estimated impact of a range of criminal justice policies introduced by the Boris Johnson government including provisions for increasing the release point for violent and sexual offenders in the recent Sentencing White Paper.

The statisticians expect the prison population to get back to the pre-Covid level of 83,200 by September next year and then to keep increasing steadily to reach the shocking figure of 98,700 by September 2026.

The remand population is projected to drop by September next year because trial capacity is expected to increase in the next year as the court system recovers from COVID-19, and so more remanded prisoners are expected to flow out of the remand population. This may be an optimistic prediction as there are numerous Crown Court trials currently being scheduled for next year, 2022 and even 2023. After September 2021, the remand population is projected to increase once more, due, yet again, to the impact of the additional police officers.

The recall population is projected to increase above current levels, in part because of the impact of the extra police officers, but also because of growth in the indeterminate sentenced recall population. This latter impact is due to an expected increase in the pool of offenders on licence, particularly as further IPP offenders are released, a proportion of which will be recalled to custody. The rate at which offenders from determinate sentences are recalled to prison is assumed to remain constant. The proportion of people in prison because they have been recalled is at an all-time high with almost one in 10 of the prison population inside for this reason at any one time.

This projection is a bitter blow for prison reformers who have been arguing for years that it is a source of national shame that we are regularly at the top of the list of European countries who incarcerate the greatest proportion of our citizens.