23 May 2024

The next Prime Minister needs to address our justice crisis


Only the Prime Minister truly knows why he’s called the general election when everything seems stacked against the Tories. Perhaps Sunak calculated that as bad as things are now, they’ll only get worse. If so, last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions must have affected his decision.

Keir Starmer had pressed Sunak on the End of Custody Supervised Licence (ECSL), the scheme under which prisoners are now being released up to 70 days early (up from 35 days when ECSL was first announced last October.) Sunak insisted that only low-risk prisoners, who pose minimal threat to the public, were being released under the scheme. 

Unfortunately, the Prison Inspectorate had published a report earlier that week describing the situation at HMP Lewes where the early release scheme was ‘undermining… safe release planning and risk management’ and that a ‘high-risk prisoner who was a risk to children had his release date brought forward despite having a history of stalking, domestic abuse and being subject to a restraining order.’ 

This has happened because the prisons are effectively full. Last week, Operation Early Dawn was activated, under which police are holding people who have been charged rather than sending them to local magistrates’ courts, because there’s no space for them in local prisons. Every morning, prison governors across the country are informed that they need to create additional spaces in their prisons, and must decide who to release. 

None of this is good enough, so the government has also advised police forces to pause ‘non-priority arrests’ and to suspend operations that may trigger ‘large numbers of arrests until there enough capacity in prisons.’ Put plainly, this means that police are being asked to leave serious organised criminal gangs operating because there’s no space to jail them. There is no realistic prospect of significant increases in prison capacity in the near-term. It is astonishing that the UK is now essentially turning a blind eye to crimes because it lacks capacity.

We often talk about problems in our prisons, with the police, the courts and with Probation Service. This is misleading. What we need to do is speak about the justice system as a whole. These four services are really parts of a single system, and failures in one part are felt throughout the whole. The prisons are full for three reasons; increasing sentence lengths, more prisoners being held on remand awaiting trial and a rising rate of released prisoners being recalled. 

While sentence lengths are a matter of long-term policy, remand and recall issues are being driven by failures in the system. The soaring remand population is being driven by court backlogs. The median wait for a Crown Court trial is over a year, substantially above the pre-Covid average of 254 days. Meanwhile 28% of outstanding cases have been open for longer than a year. Outstanding Crown Court cases have been rising since 2018, when there were around 33,000. There are now almost 70,000 Crown Court cases outstanding.

While the government tends to blame the pandemic and the 2022 barristers’ strike, the reality is that this trend began years before Covid, and has continued since the strike ceased. Over a decade of underinvestment in the courts and criminal bar have created a court system which is no longer fit for purpose. 

Similarly, the Probation Service, which has since 2010 been privatised and then renationalised, is overseeing a recall rate which has risen 15% in a year. This isn’t just the fault of the Probation Service though – almost no prisons are releasing the expected percentage of inmates with stable accommodation or a job to go to. This matters because employment, housing and a stable social network are the best protections against reoffending.

In our overcrowded, violent, drug-filled prisons, little meaningful work is done to prepare prisoners for release, and so the cycle of release, reoffending and recall continues. Now we’re at the point where the police are being asked to stop arresting criminals. This isn’t a serious or sustainable policy agenda. 

Now we have entered election season, organisations like the Prison and Probation Inspectors will stop publishing their reports. But the justice crisis will continue. Whoever is Prime Minister on July 5, he will need to act swiftly and decisively to fix the justice system before it’s too late.

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David Shipley is a writer, speaker and former prisoner.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.