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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Trends in criminal justice spending

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The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies tracks (downward) trends in criminal justice spending and staffing

“The criminal justice system in England and Wales has become increasingly punitive, with more pressure being piled onto an already crisis-ridden prisons system.” 

That is the conclusion of a new (12 July 2019) report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies entitled: Trends in criminal justice spending, staffing and populations. The report reveals that police-recorded crime – often considered the gateway to the criminal justice system – has soared over the last decade. The CCJS argues that increasing political support for restoring police officer levels to pre-austerity historical highs, alongside harsher sentencing for knife offences suggests that a more punitive system is on the horizon. Considering the stubbornly high prison population and significant cuts to spending and staffing since 2010, the prisons system may face unsustainable pressure. 

The report tracks changes in expenditure, workforce and caseloads in the main criminal justice institutions of the police, courts, prison and probation over the latest ten-year period for which there is data. The report is unique in covering all three criminal justice jurisdictions of the UK: England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Key findings from the report include:

  • An increase of 37% in the number of crimes recorded by the police, from around four million in 2013-2014 to 5.5 million in 2017-2018 
  •  A fall of 53% in community sentences handed down in the courts, from over 190,000 in 2008-2009 to just over 90,000 in 2017-2018
  • A prison population remaining stubbornly high at around 85,000 people on any given day between 2008-2009 and 2017-2018
  • 7% less spent on prisons, from £4.2 billion in 2012-2013 to 3.9 billion in 2016-2017 
  • 30% fewer prison staff, falling from 51,000 in 2008-2009 to 36,000 in 2017-2018

In terms of a UK-wide perspective, the overall criminal justice footprint of all three jurisdictions have shrunk. In Northern Ireland, spending on criminal justice has fallen alongside a decline in prison, probation and police officers whilst convictions and prosecutions have also decreased. In Scotland, despite expenditure cuts, there has been an increase in probation, police and prison service staff. The unifying trend across all three criminal justice jurisdictions is that all continue to have a stubbornly high prison population. 

I reproduce some key charts from the report below which mainly focus on the trends in England and Wales. Apologies to readers from Scotland and Northern Ireland who will find the same level of excellent detail in the report itself.

Spending

Staffing

Both England and Wales, and Northern Ireland have seen significant reductions in police officer numbers since 2008-2009. During 2017-2018 there were a fifth fewer police officers in Northern Ireland than there had been ten years
previously. Similarly, police forces in England and Wales employed a sixth fewer officers in 2017-2018 than they had done in 2008-2009. Police officer numbers in Scotland, on the other hand, grew by four per cent during this time.

Prison staffing cuts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland since 2008-2009 have been more drastic than cuts in police officer levels in these two jurisdictions. Just shy of a third of the prison workforce in England and Wales was shed between 2008- 2009 and 2017-2018. The decrease occurred in the first half of the decade and prison service
staffing levels were then steady in the period between 2013-2014 and 2016-2017. The year to 2017-2018 saw a seven per cent increase in prison staffing. In recent years the Ministry of Justice has sought to stabilise staffing levels in prisons amid widespread criticism that staffing and budget cuts have led to increases in suicides, self-harm and
violence in prisons.

The prison service workforce in Northern Ireland contracted by a third between 2008-2009 and 2017-2018. Again, bucking the trend seen in the other two jurisdictions, Scotland saw a 14 per cent increase in prison service staff. After rising at a consistent rate from 2008-2009 to 2014-2015, Scottish Prison Service staffing has remained at consistent levels.

Trends in probation service staffing levels between 2008-2009 and 2017-2018 have been inconsistent. Scotland’s workforce swelled by 14 per cent to a peak of 2,100 between 2008-2009 and 2013-2014. Staffing levels then fell in the
years to 2015-2016 before beginning to rise again afterwards, leading to an overall increase of seven per cent over the decade.

The trajectory of staffing levels in the public sector probation service in England and Wales has been mainly shaped by the transfer of a significant proportion of probation services to the private sector in 2014-2015. The number of probation staff employed in the public sector fell 46 per cent as a result. Central government is not responsible for
the management of the new private Community Rehabilitation Companies, and so data on the staff employed by them is not routinely published. Nevertheless, staffing levels in the unified public sector probation service which existed before the privatisation had already fallen by a fifth between 2008-2009 and 2013-2014. Staff numbers in what remains of the publicly-owned probation service have stayed roughly the same in the years following the split.

Some fluctuation in the numbers of staff employed by the Probation Board for Northern Ireland between 2008-2009 and 2017-2018 can be seen, but overall numbers remained relatively constant. Overall there was a six per cent rise
in probation staff in Northern Ireland over the decade.

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