The latest official prison population projections published yesterday (23 February 2023) by the Ministry of Justice and the Office for National Statistics demonstrate the uncertainties at the heart of our criminal justice system. The headline figures are confusing, to say the least:
- The prison population is projected to increase, with a central estimate of 94,400 by March 2025
- The estimate for two years later, March 2027, is within a huge range of 93,100 to 106,300.
In the first few years of the projection period, the projected rise in the prison population is primarily due to an increase in receptions of determinate sentenced offenders. This is because courts are assumed to dispose of more cases than they receive in order to clear the additional trial backlog that arose during COVID-19 restrictions and the Criminal Bar Association strike action.
The total prison population is projected to continue to increase over the full projection period. This is partly driven by rising police officer numbers which are expected to increase charge volumes and therefore increase the future prison population.
There are several sources of uncertainty for long-term prison population, particularly around future levels of demand entering the Criminal Justice System (CJS).
The publication presents three prison population projections to assess the impact of differing potential upstream demand scenarios. All three projections reflect what the statisticians call “plausible scenarios for future police and prosecutorial activity”. All three scenarios take account of expected increases in police officer numbers and project higher long-term prison demand, but vary factors such as charges per police officer, the crime mix entering the courts, and average custodial sentence lengths. You can see how the different projections unfold in the chart reproduced from the report below.
The scenarios are not intended to reflect the full range of demand risk for the CJS, but rather to estimate the plausible range of police and prosecutorial activity – a large driver of future prison demand over the mid to long-term. The statisticians are keen to emphasise that the projections do not represent the highest and lowest possible prison demand or the full range of uncertainty surrounding the projections.
There are several additional sources of uncertainty including the speed with which the CJS recovers from the pandemic – Crown Court backlogs remain very high. Other uncertainties relate to future crime types (in particular which types of crime police prioritise) and the volumes of crime and how many are processed through the CJS.
The plethora of recent policy changes (many of which relate to extending maximum sentence times and reducing the likelihood of parole) have not all yet been implemented and therefore make it hard for statisticians to model their impact on prison numbers.
The three scenarios which result in this very imprecise projection of the prison population being between 93,100 to 106,300 by March 2027 are:
- High upstream demand – police and CPS crime mix and charges per officer start to return to pre-COVID (2019) levels, resulting in a large increase in the volume of cases coming into court. Additionally, Average Custodial Sentence Lengths (ACSL) return to 2019 levels.
- Low upstream demand – police and CPS crime mix and charges per officer stay at lower levels observed in 2021 and do not return to pre-COVID behaviour. Similarly, ACSLs reflect 2021 levels.
- Central upstream demand – crime mix remains as observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are some increases in charges per officer, it remains below pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, ACSLs reflect levels observed from 2019 to 2021.
When trying to make sense of these very large rises in our prison population (there were 83,687 people in prison last Friday 17 February, itself a jump of 1149 people in the previous four week period), it is important to remember that, along with Scotland, England & Wales already incarcerates a large proportion of its citizens than any other Western European country.