COVID recovery progress report
The criminal justice system remains a long way from recovering from the effects of the pandemic and continues to operate at unacceptable levels in some areas, according to a joint report by the four HM Chief Inspectors published today.
The Criminal Justice Joint Inspection report highlights the shared challenges of increasing demand, funding constraints, workforce pressures and low public confidence, and raises particular concerns about the continuing high Crown Court backlogs.
It found that most agencies are not yet able to recover to their pre-COVID-19 position and warns that without a coordinated whole-system plan, recovery is likely to be disjointed and risks further fracturing the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
The Chief Inspectors of Police, CPS, Probation and Prisons have published this joint report as an update to their ‘state of the nation’ report in January 2021 on the impact of COVID-19. It draws on inspection findings from across the four services over the whole of last year, as well as cross-cutting themes. It says:
“While the constraints on daily life have now been dropped, the criminal justice system is a long way from recovery and in some parts continues to operate at unacceptable levels. Prisoners still spend 22.5 hours a day in their cell, hundreds of thousands of hours of unpaid work go uncompleted in the Probation Service, and Crown Court backlogs remain high.”
The Chief Inspectors set their findings in the context of increasing demand on the CJS with the overall crime rate increasing substantially, fuelled by a major increase in fraud and computer misuse, but also including the highest number of rapes and sexual offences ever recorded by the police in a 12-month period.
A number of persistent problems are highlighted including:
- CPS struggling to recruit prosecutors in some areas
- Many junior barristers left the independent bar in the early days of the lockdown and have not returned, hampering the ability of the CPS to cover court hearings with external advocates.
- The number of Crown Court cases waiting longer than a year has increased by more than 340 per cent since March 2020.
- Large numbers of court orders remain uncompleted and the probation service’s progress in tackling these backlogs has been disappointingly slow.
- In prison, recovery from the pandemic has been slow and inconsistent. Too many prisoners are still spending 22.5 hours locked up every day – in sharp contrast to the lifting of restrictions beyond the prison walls. The lack of social contact, including with families, has had a dire effect on the wellbeing of prisoners. Long spells locked up have also limited opportunities for education, training or rehabilitation.
My interactive chart below provides detailed information about the Crown Court backlog:
The report commends the hard work and commitment of staff and praises instances of strategic thinking across agencies in the wake of the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet it concludes:
“None of the risks identified in our 2021 joint report have been mitigated in their entirety and recovery remains elusive. The system is getting by because of an artificially supressed level of activity and reduced performance management and quality expectations – which cannot go on.
The greatest challenge to the system, as we see it, is shifting back from pandemic exceptional delivery arrangements to a more business-as-usual way of working across the board.
Where there are signs of business as usual emerging, it is with an exhausted workforce which is still adapting to new ways of working and getting back to normal. Without a coordinated whole-system plan, progress is likely to be disjointed. Given the nature of the criminal justice system, as one service recovers, that is likely to push issues into the next, and that service may not have recovered sufficiently to cope.
This, coupled with the increase in police numbers and the unification of probation services, as well as a workforce that is under-resourced in some places and/or inexperienced, could further fracture the system.”