The criminal justice system continues to operate at ‘unacceptable levels’ in England and Wales and is far from recovering from the ‘shock’ of the coronavirus pandemic, watchdogs have warned.
Four high-level inspectors have joined forces to express their “serious concerns” about the situation.
Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, Justin Russell, Chief Inspector of Probation, Andy Cooke, Chief Inspector of Police, and Andrew Cayley, Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), issued the warning on Tuesday before being questioned by the deputies. on this point.
In a joint report, they explained how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the work of police, prosecutors, prisons, probation and juvenile delinquency teams.
It comes after watchdogs warned last year that the ‘unprecedented and very serious’ backlog posed the biggest threat to the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
Describing the system as being in a “precarious state” before the pandemic, the latest report says the Covid “shock” has “worsened the situation”, adding: “Such unacceptable delays have a negative impact on victims and defendants. , and – the effects on other criminal justice agencies. »
He said that although the “constraints on daily life have now been removed, the criminal justice system is far from restored and in some areas continues to operate at unacceptable levels”.
Inspectors added: “Prisoners still spend 22.5 hours a day in their cells, hundreds of thousands of hours of unpaid work remain unfinished in the probation service and Crown court backlogs remain high. “.
Speaking on behalf of the four watchdogs, Mr Taylor told the PA news agency: ‘If we don’t do these things right, if we don’t get people through the courts fast enough, if we we don’t have prisons capable of truly rehabilitating people…so what we will find is that people will come out of prison with the danger of committing more crimes and we will see more victims and that is not acceptable.
The report reflects “our serious concerns about the ability of the criminal justice system to recover, even to its pre-Covid state,” Mr Taylor said, adding: “The impact of the pandemic will be felt for a period extended and system-wide recovery will take much longer than originally anticipated.
“We are particularly concerned about the lack of an overall recovery plan. Instead, each part of the system operates in isolation and is left free to determine its own course. Taken together, this presents a very mixed picture and progress is likely to be piecemeal.
The findings highlight the challenges faced across the board due to “increased demand, funding constraints, workforce pressures and low public confidence”, as well as ” particular concerns” about backlogs that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Most criminal justice bodies ‘are not yet able to recover to their pre-Covid-19 position’ and recovery is likely to be ‘disjointed’ and risks ‘further fracturing’ the system unless there is a coordinated plan at all levels.
While the ‘hard work and commitment of staff’ during the crisis was praised, the report says recovery ‘remains elusive’ after none of the risks the four previously identified bodies were ‘mitigated in their entirety”.
The report also cites figures which show that at the end of December, 25% of cases (14,612 cases) had been waiting for a year or more to come to court, and the number of cases waiting more than a year increased by more than 340% since March 2020.
The Law Society of England and Wales said the government must “heed the growing number” of watchdogs and professional bodies “raising the alarm over the crisis in the criminal justice system”, while the Criminal Bar Association said the report “correctly concludes that there still appears to be no coherent plan on the part of the government to right the sinking ship that it broke through years ago before the pandemic”.
A government spokesman said: ‘Thanks to the nearly half a billion we have invested and the additional steps we have taken to reduce the backlog in Crown Courts… the number of backlogs is falling and we have now relaxed restrictions in our prisons which have kept staff, prisoners and the wider community safe.
“We have over 4,000 more prison officers than in 2016 and are recruiting probation officers at record levels to improve public protection.”