What an awful year it’s been, a year most of us would rather forget - a year when the cracks in the criminal justice system were brutally exposed.
As Covid-19 took hold, courts closed, causing a lengthy backlog of criminal cases to extend even further; offender rehabilitation work was sharply curtailed, with prisoners locked in cells for 23 hours a day; police had to enforce unprecedented, and rapidly changing restrictions on our liberty, placing them in situations none of us could have anticipated 12 months ago.
There’s little sign of any let up in 2021.
In fact, the impact of delays on victims, witnesses and defendants is likely to become even more pronounced; don’t be surprised if cases collapse because they’ve gone on too long or if serious crimes are committed by suspects bailed due to legal hold ups.
At Crest Advisory, where I'm now Head of Strategy and Insight, we’ve already shown how the criminal justice system across England and Wales has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. We’ll publish further research on this in the New Year and begin a new project exploring what options the police and Crown Prosecution Service have to manage the inflow of cases into the courts to help ease the backlog.
Of course, this all comes as law enforcement braces itself for far-reaching changes to EU data and intelligence-sharing procedures when the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December. There’s little doubt there’ll be repercussions - less information will be exchanged at a slower rate than now - what’s unclear is just how serious they’ll be.
Criminal justice reform
For a while, the pandemic put a brake on the Government’s ambitious programme of law and order reform; the centrepiece - a Royal Commission - has yet to be launched, though officials have begun drawing up the terms of reference, which suggests it may not be far off.
In terms of policy, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is set to be one of the busiest Government departments in the months to come, with findings expected from a series of reports and consultations. A review of the Parole Board, due in the summer, is examining the possibility of changing it into a more transparent “public protection tribunal” with stronger powers.
The way compensation for victims of crime is awarded is to be overhauled with new arrangements in terrorism cases. And, most contentious of all, the MoJ has set up two expert panels to examine the workings of the Human Rights Act and the system of Judicial Review, both of which may well report back next year.
High-level policy, though, is likely to be overshadowed by events on the ground. From June, the state-run National Probation Service (NPS) will start supervising low and medium-risk offenders, as well as those judged to be high-risk, in a move which drastically scales back the involvement of the private sector. The NPS will also deliver unpaid work and behaviour change schemes as part of the second hugely complex probation shake-up in six years. Expect more than a few teething troubles...
It’s also the year when tangible progress must be made on the MoJ’s prison building programme. Ministers aim to provide at least 18,000 extra places by 2026, mainly in six new jails, but construction is under way at only two sites so far. It typically takes five to six years from planning approval to opening, so there can be no delays if the target is to be met.
The reason why the Government is promising to invest an additional £4bn to build prisons is because of a projected surge in the jail population. Next year it’s forecast to go up by 4,000 before rising by a further 15,000 by 2026.
Tougher sentencing for serious offenders, with a Bill to be introduced in the coming months, will account for only a small part of the likely increase; most of it will be due to the drive to hire 20,000 more police officers by 2023. As Crest modelling showed, this will lead to a rise in arrests, charges, convictions - and rates of imprisonment.
The effect of the police recruitment campaign on crime and charging levels is being monitored by the Crime and Justice Task Force, a new cross-Whitehall committee chaired by Boris Johnson. The Government is demanding improvements - and there’ll be renewed pressure on that front next year, as the Covid crisis begins to clear, with the Home Office likely to reintroduce national targets (though they'll probably be called something else).
Securing reductions in some types of offending, such as online fraud, car crime and burglary, will be particularly challenging given the most recent economic forecasts. In the second quarter of next year, the Office for Budget Responsibility expects UK unemployment to rise to a peak of 7.5 per cent, that’s 2.6 million people. Historically, acquisitive crimes have tended to go up when people’s incomes have gone down.
Some limited reform of policing is also in the pipeline, with technical changes to the model of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) early in the New Year, and more substantive proposals after the postponed elections in May, when around half the current PCCs are likely to stand down. Many are keen to put their local mark on plans to reduce reoffending and we hope to help through our project working with PCCs across ten regions to support better decision-making across the criminal justice system.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is expected to become law, a new Victims Code will come into force, and legislation may be introduced to tackle online harms, following this month’s White Paper. We could also get to discover what’s happened to Sir Craig Mackey’s review into serious organised crime, which has been completed but puzzlingly not published, and who will chair the long-awaited review of the ‘Prevent’ strand of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, which Crest reported on this year.
The Home Office is busy preparing a Police Powers and Protections Bill, which will probably resemble a box of Quality Street, with something in it for everyone. Proposals to reverse misguided changes to police bail may be included along with measures enabling police to stop and search people already convicted of knife offences - without reasonable grounds for suspicion. They’d be called Serious Violence Reduction Orders.
At a time when both the effectiveness and fairness of existing stop-and-search powers has again become a source of controversy, amid evidence of disproportionality, claims of discrimination and allegations of heavy-handedness, the new plans will no doubt come in for intense criticism. Police decision-making will also be under the spotlight during a series of high-profile inquests and court hearings, including the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which resumes in spring.
This year, the policing of the coronavirus restrictions, and the killing by US police of George Floyd, have led to searching questions about the role and legitimacy of our own police service, particularly among ethnic minority communities. That debate is set to carry on during the next 12 months with forces required to demonstrate progress on race equality and inclusion - work which Crest has contributed to through our support to the National Police Chiefs’ Council and College of Policing.
We will have a busy programme of research and policy starting with our report on the impact of Covid on the justice system and new analysis of the role vulnerability plays in causing serious violence. Our work with the Police Foundation on the impact of Covid on the police is being extended into spring to take account of the second wave of restrictions and lockdowns which have dominated the late autumn and early part of winter. New projects include an in-depth look at how the police approach ‘county lines’ drug dealing, exploring the overlap between victim and offender in this key area of concern for the justice and care systems. We hope that through this research and our consultancy work we can help policing and the criminal justice system make sense of the exceptional challenges they face in the year ahead.