Statement from the Criminal Justice Ministers to the National Criminal Justice Board
23 January 2007
Managing the Impact of Rapid Growth in the Prison Population
The prison population is currently running very close to capacity with prisoners having to be held in police stations and even, on one night, in court cells. Last night around 480 prisoners were locked out in police cells.
The growth in the prison population is a post-war trend which accelerated in the 1990s. A good deal has changed since then. Although the total number of prison places has risen by 19,700 since 1997, changes in legislation, sentencing guidance, improved detection and conviction rates and longer term trends in sentencing practice have combined such that demand for prison places has consistently outpaced supply. In addition, in recent months the trends have become harder to predict – the latest Christmas drop in the prison population was unexpectedly shallower than in previous years.
The growth of the prison population is a problem which affects the whole of the criminal justice system.
The essential sentencing principles are set out in legislation:
Custodial sentences should be reserved for serious, persistent and violent offenders
Where appropriate one or other alternatives to custody should be used
Pre-trial remands in custody should be limited to cases identified in the Bail Act 1976 and, in particular, cases where there is a risk of non-attendance, committing further offences or intimidating witnesses
The Government has taken action to increase capacity. The Home Secretary announced plans for an extra 8,000 prison places last July. These are already starting to come on stream with nearly 1,000 extra places added since May 2006.
The Government announced last summer a range of actions in “Delivering Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice” to speed up the trial process, reduce the number of adjournments, and bring trials on faster. Various pilots are showing it is possible to make a significant reduction in the number of hearings in Magistrates Courts. CJSSS improvements will not only improve timeliness and increase confidence in CJS, they can also reduce the amount of time which defendants spend on remand.
The Government supports alternatives to custody for non-serious, non-violent and non-persistent offenders – criminal justice legislation offers a wide range of tough non-custodial sentences. Through the Judicial Studies Board and Sentencing Guidelines Council sentencers are provided with up to date information about use of non-custodial sentences.
The roll out of video link technology has been an important technical innovation for the CJS. Greater use and availability of video links will reduce the need to transfer prisoners to court and reduce delays in hearings.
The Government is working to increase public confidence in community sentences – the range of punitive and restorative conditions which can be imposed by way of community sentences has increased significantly in recent years. Ministers and the Criminal Justice Agencies have a responsibility to ensure that local communities understand how community penalties can contribute to the delivery of justice.
There will be greater sharing of information about police and other operations which could impact on the prison population. Knowledge of the timing of these operations can help CJS agencies to plan capacity more effectively.
The enforcement and collection of fines has considerably increased, from 69% of fines in 2003 to a current payment rate of 94%. Fear of lack of enforcement should not be a reason for not fining.
Prosecutors are under a duty to ensure that sentencers are fully informed of the relevant statutory provisions.
The National Criminal Justice Board is inviting LCJBs to ask chief officers to advise on the impact locally of trends in prison and non-custodial disposals and report back to their NCJB sponsor ahead of the next NCJB meeting in March.
We note a number of features of recent decisions of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division and welcome the Senior Presiding Judge’s recent letter to the judiciary underlining:
The possible use of tagging on bail as an alternative to remand in custody. Greater use could reduce the numbers that have to be remanded in custody
Use of stand-down reports. Greater use of “stand down” reports enabling the defendant to be dealt with on the day, could avoid unnecessary remands in custody pending the report. Over 40% of defendants remanded in custody for a pre-sentence report do not receive a custodial sentence