Unpicking the impact of COVID
Last week (28 October 2021), the Ministry of Justice published its quarterly offender management statistics bulletin which covers the prison population up to the end of September this year and data for most other key prison and probation trends up to the end of June. At first sight, many of the trends look a little haywire, but that is because comparisons are being made with 12 months earlier when the impact of the pandemic, both in prison and in the community was at its most severe. You can see from my own chart below (based on the official prison population data published every Friday) that the prison population fell by over 5,000 from its pre-COVID levels but is now steadily rising again. Below the prison population chart, I look at the main trends of interest.
Remands still rising
The remand population has dramatically increased since June 2019. As at 30 September 2021, the remand population was 12,990. This is the highest quarterly figure since September 2011. This was driven by a 19% increase in the convicted unsentenced population as compared with 30 September 2020 whilst the untried population remained relatively constant. This is related directly to the growing backlog in the Crown Courts.
Most of those in custody on remand were being held for either:
- Violence against the person (28% of the untried population and 19% of the convicted unsentenced population)
- Drug offences (27% of the untried population and 31% of the convicted unsentenced population).
As at 30 September 2021, there were 9,254 (8,306 male; 326 female) indeterminate sentenced prisoners (those serving Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences and life sentences). Although this represents a slight overall decrease (-2%), there was, somewhat staggeringly, a 24% increase in the number of prisoners serving indeterminate sentences in the 18-20 years age bracket when compared with 30 September 2020.
There remain 1,661 IPP prisoners who have never been released, most of whom have been held more than 8 years past their tariff.
The number of prisoner releases between April and June 2021 was 13% lower than the same quarter in 2020.
The largest fall was in the number of releases from sentences of 12 months to less than 4 years, which was 18% lower than during the same period in 2020. This reflects the general trend in the prison population away from short sentenced offenders, to those serving longer determinate sentences. Additionally, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the prosecution of more serious offences has been prioritised, meaning that fewer prisoners have been received into prison and thus been released from the shorter sentences handed out for less serious offences.
Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL)
As most readers will know, most ROTL was suspended for much of the pandemic period. Although numbers are nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, they have started increasing again. There were 51,083 incidences of ROTL during the quarter ending June 2021, 69% were for ‘Work Related’ reasons. There were 105 temporary release failures during this period, the usual proportion of 1 in 500.
The number of licence recalls between April and June 2021 was 5,362, of which 446 were recalls from Home Detention Curfew (HDC). The total number of recalls decreased by 9% compared to the same quarter in 2020.
There usually is more than one reason for recalling an offender on licence. Of recalls in April-June 2021, about 39% involved a charge of further offending, 74% involved non-compliance, 29% involved failure to keep in touch, and 25% involved failure to reside.
The total number of offenders on probation (both those on court orders and pre/post-supervision) at the end of June 2021 was 230,578. This represents a 3% increase compared to the end of June 2020 and a 3% increase compared to the end of March this year. Between the end of June 2020 and the end of June 2021, court order caseload increased by 16% from 88,639 to 102,767, with the number of offenders on a community order (CO) and those on a suspended sentence order (SSO) with requirements increasing by 19% and 13% respectively.
The total caseload of offenders supervised before or after release from prison at the end of June 2021 was 131,650, representing a decrease of 6% compared to the end of June 2020.
The impact of COVID on probation becomes very clear when we find out that the number of people starting court orders between April and June this year is 219% higher than the previous year, at the height of the first lockdown.
Between April and June 2021, 65% of 7,846 COs and 76% of 5,062 SSOs (for the supervision period) were terminated successfully, i.e. ran their full course or were terminated early for good progress.
It will be interesting to see when the next quarterly statistics are published at the end of January 2022 whether the progress towards pre-pandemic normality has been continued. We must hope, at the very least, for a reduction in the number of people held on remand.