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CJS operating at “unacceptable levels” says watchdogs

A joint report from four top inspectors has revealed “serious concerns” over the continued effect of the pandemic on the Criminal Justice System.

The Criminal Justice System is far from recovering from the “shock” of the pandemic, the watchdogs have warned.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, Justin Russell, Chief Inspector of Probation, Andy Cooke, Chief Inspector of Constabulary, and Andrew Cayley, Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), issued the warning today.

The report said the system was in a “parlous state” before the pandemic but COVID-19 has “made it worse”.

“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,” it said.

The report said the challenges are due to “increasing demand, funding constraints, workforce pressures and low public confidence”, as well as raising “particular concerns” about the backlogs which were exacerbated by the pandemic.

In addition, between October 2020 and September 2021, the overall crime rate had increased by 14 per cent compared with two years previously.

This jump encompassed a major increase in fraud and computer misuse, but also reflected the highest number of rapes and sexual offences ever recorded by the police in a 12 month period.

At the end of December, 25 per cent of cases (14,612) had been waiting for a year or more to come to court, while the number of cases waiting longer than a year had increased by more than 340 per cent since March 2020.

The limit on Crown Court sitting days was removed for the 2021/22 financial year and HMCTS have extended 22 Nightingale courtrooms until March 2023. 70 per cent of all courtrooms are now equipped with video conferencing hardware which at full capacity would allow 13,000 cases to be heard virtually each week.

The report said the impact of these and other measures has so far been minimal.

“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,” the report said.

“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.”

What about the police?

The report praised the Uplift recruitment programme, but pointed out that this will not help with the lack of experienced detectives and digital forensic specialists additionally saying; “it is not certain that the police will meet the programme’s objective of completing the 20,000 uplift by March 2023”.

“Workloads remain high, and the thin blue line stretched,” it said.

The inspectors additionally found that the pandemic had impacted on officer training and that “many forces are struggling to respond to this.”

The demands of digital evidence, exacerbated by higher levels of online crime, continue to cause problems despite forces increasing the sizes of the teams that deal with digital forensics and outsourcing tasks.

The inspectors praised the fact that in general “forces took immediate and decisive action to respond to the extreme circumstances of the pandemic”, and adjusted to enforcing the pandemic regulations.

 

Speaking on behalf of the four watchdogs, Mr Taylor said: “This report reflects our serious concerns about the ability of the criminal justice system to recover, even to its pre-Covid state.

“The impact of the pandemic will be felt for a prolonged period and whole-system recovery will take a lot longer than initially anticipated.

“We are particularly concerned at the absence of an overarching recovery plan. Instead, each part of the system is operating in isolation and left to determine its own course. Taken together, this presents a very mixed picture and progress is likely to be disjointed.”

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