01 February 2021 – Making an impact – court backlogs and new funding

The publication of a joint report by the four criminal justice inspectorates on the impact of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system certainly created a splash, with extensive coverage of our shared concern about the rapid increase in court backlogs since the first lockdown last year. Listening to the personal stories of rape and domestic violence victims before my breakfast round of radio interviews certainly brought home to me the human consequences of such long delays. Some Crown Court trials are not listed until 2022 and there is no chance for victims (and defendants) to get their lives back to normal until then. Getting to grips with this issue must be a shared priority for everyone working in the system this year.

Later that afternoon, we were able to expand on the other findings in our report in a rare joint appearance of all four justice Chief Inspectors at the House of Commons Justice Committee. We paid tribute to the commitment of staff in all the services we inspect for keeping these vital services running. We also noted the professional way in which probation services and the Crown Prosecution Service were able to switch to remote working almost overnight. The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have improved partnership working with police, probation and other agencies able to meet much more rapidly through virtual case conferences; this approach has proved more effective than face-to-face meetings. The pandemic has accelerated the roll-out of digital technology like the Cloud Video Platform in courts which might otherwise have taken far longer.

We pointed to the downsides of the pandemic too, notably the impact of highly restrictive regimes on prisoner mental wellbeing and the lack of education for children in custody and on the caseloads of youth offending teams – which will have further damaged the life chances of this cohort.

I was asked by the Committee about the likely impact of the pandemic on reoffending rates. In practice, this will not be known for several years and will be complicated by the fact that lockdown led to a significant reduction in crime rates last year, which may have reduced short-term reoffending rates. Having said that, the reduction in group-based offending behaviour programmes during the pandemic and in service users accessing support services like drug or alcohol abuse treatment services may have had the opposite effect. So, it has been good to see the government announcing additional funds for drug abuse treatment in the coming year, as well as more money for accommodation, including a pledge to ensure that everyone leaving prison in five probation regions gets a roof over their heads for at least three months, while longer-term housing is sorted out.  I was particularly pleased to see this response to our thematic inspection of accommodation, published last July, which found more than 11,000 prisoners a year being released homeless and a recall to custody rate for those released without stable accommodation which was nearly twice as high as for those with a proper home. In that report we called for a national cross-government strategy to tackle this issue, so it is pleased to see that this is now starting to happen.

A key source of evidence for our accommodation inspection were the interviews we commissioned from 75 current service users about their experience of leaving prison. I have been keen to ensure that these stories are heard in all of our thematic inspections. So, to that end, we are currently looking for an organisation to provide people with lived experience of the criminal justice system to join our thematic inspection on the experience of individuals with mental health needs within the criminal justice system from arrest through to imprisonment. Read more about the expression of interest (closing date 17 February 2021).