The state of the criminal justice system

The latest offender management statistics show the impact of COVID on our justice system

The Ministry of Justice and Office for National Statistics has published its regular quarterly statistical bulletin on “Offender Management”. The bulletin looks at all the main trends affecting the prison and probation systems covering the period of the 2020 calendar year (but going up to March 2021 for the prison population).

Of course the pandemic has been the main factor affecting the prison population and probation caseloads. Here are the headline trends:

  • The prison population is down by nearly 5,000 people or 6% in the year to 31 March 2021.
  • The number of people going to prison (formally defined as “received into custody as first receptions”) was 59,576 – down 17% compared to 2019.
  • The number of people released from prison also fell significantly – by 15% compared to 2019.
  • The number of prison adjudications (when prisoners are charged with breaking prison rules) fell by almost a quarter (24%) compared to the previous year. This is, in some ways, a surprisingly small drop given the fact that people were locked up in their cells for so much of the time.
  • The total number of people supervised by the probation service fell by 10% to 223,973.

Let’s look at the figures in more detail.

The prison population

The remand population (those held in prison awaiting trial, and those held in prison between trial and sentencing) has increased by a whopping 22% over the past year (to 12,262). This is the highest end of financial year remand population figure for ten years. Conversely, the sentenced prison population on 31 March 2021 has fallen by 10% over the past year (to 64,783), which represents the lowest level for 15 years.

This is in line with the effects of COVID-19 on the Criminal Justice System – in particular, delays in court hearings. The effect of this on the prison population is that the normal system flow of individuals from the remand to the sentenced population (after sentencing at court) has been disrupted; resulting in more people held on remand, and fewer sentenced prisoners.

Most people in custody on remand were being held for one of three main types of offences:

  • Drug offences
    • 29% of the untried population
    • 30% of the convicted unsentenced population
  • Violence against the person
    • 27% of the untried population
    • 19% of the convicted unsentenced population
  • Theft offences
    • 9% of the untried population
    • 11% of the convicted unsentenced population

Indeed, the number of people being held on remand for drug offences nearly doubled (up 96%) between March 2020 and 2021.

The effects of COVID-19 are also apparent in the number of incidences of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) in the latest quarter (a 63% fall compared to the same period in 2019); the number of incidences of prisoner transfer [between prisons] (a 30% annual decrease) and the number of occasions that Additional Days were awarded as punishment following a proven adjudication (which was 84% lower than the period October to December 2019).

Despite the overall fall in the prison population of 5,000, the number of people who have been released but subsequently recalled to prison has continued to grow. The number of people in prison who are there because they have been released and recalled increased by 3% over the previous year to 9,182.

Probation caseload

As we have seen, the probation caseload fell by 10% in 2020 mainly due to the court closures occasioned by the pandemic. There was a large fall in the number of people starting on probation because of court closures and backlogs. Indeed, the number of people starting court orders supervised by the probation service actually fell by almost a quarter (23%) compared to 2019. Although the impact of court closures was biggest in the April to June quarter, the number of people starting community orders in October to December was still down 5% on the previous year, suggesting that courts have made very little inroads (if any) into their backlog.