The latest criminal justice trends

Work with offenders takes a close look at the latest statistics

In normal times, criminal justice statistics tend to change slowly with trends gradually emerging before either consolidating or fading away again. But these are not normal times, the latest edition of the Ministry of Justice Criminal Justice Statistics quarterly cover the 12 month period to the end of September 2020 and graphically demonstrate the impact of the first lockdown and the bounce-back of activity over the summer.

The pace of change is unprecedented.

Key trends 

The total number of people formally dealt with by the Criminal Justice System (CJS) in England and Wales has been hugely impacted by the pandemic, plummeting by 22% compared to the previous year. CJS activity was, unsurprisingly, massively down in the April-June quarter of last year, most of which was covered by the first national lockdown but bounced back by 64% in the July-September period.

These trends probably make more sense if translated into hard numbers. Our chart below shows information for the last four quarters for which figures are available, starting in the last quarter of 2019, when we had not even heard the word coronavirus. The chart shows both the total number of defendants proceeded against and the total number of offenders convicted.

The statistics reveal the impact of prioritisation in the wake of the pandemic; an increased focus on more serious offences means that more people were prosecuted for violence, sexual and drug offences in the July-September quarter than the corresponding period the previous year – despite the overall fall in the number of prosecutions.

The same decision to focus court time on more serious offences resulted in the highest proportion of defendants being remanded in custody in the last five years. In the last 12 month period as a whole, 10% of defendants were remanded in custody by police prior to appearing at court, 5% were remanded in custody at magistrates’ court, and 41% at the Crown Court.

There was also a knock-on effect on the average length of prison sentences passed down by the courts. The average custodial sentence length increased across most offence groups over the latest year and was 21.4 months for indictable offences and 2.7 months for summary offences. This is the  highest ever figure, but since the average length of prison sentence was already increasing year-on-year, it is hard to know exactly what impact the pandemic and corresponding prioritisation of more serious offences has had.

Looking forwards 

It is likely that forthcoming editions of this particular statistical bulletin will continue to be atypical and show major fluctuations in our criminal justice system. The next edition, published in May, will show the first implications of the second wave of the virus and consequent restrictions, while the August edition will make for particularly interesting reading. It will cover all of the second extended national lockdown which we are currently living through and provide an accurate account of how well we have adapted to the demands of the pandemic and whether the change to so many online hearings and the introduction of dozens of “nightingale courts” have helped manage the current backlog of cases in both the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts.