THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM remains a long way from recovering from the effects of the pandemic, and continues to operate at unacceptable levels in some areas, according to a joint report by the four HM Chief Inspectors for England and Wales.

The Criminal Justice Joint Inspection report highlights the shared challenges of increasing demand, funding constraints, workforce pressures and low public confidence, and raises particular concerns about the continuing high Crown Court backlogs.

It found that most agencies are not yet able to recover to their pre-COVID-19 position and warns that without a coordinated whole-system plan, recovery is likely to be disjointed and risks further fracturing the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

The Chief Inspectors of Police, CPS, Probation and Prisons have published this joint report as an update to their ‘state of the nation’ report in January 2021 on the impact of Covid-19. It draws on inspection findings from across the four services over the whole of last year, as well as cross-cutting themes. It says: “While the constraints on daily life have now been dropped, the criminal justice system is a long way from recovery and in some parts continues to operate at unacceptable levels. Prisoners still spend 22.5 hours a day in their cell, hundreds of thousands of hours of unpaid work go uncompleted in the Probation Service, and Crown Court backlogs remain high.”

The report commends the hard work and commitment of staff and praises instances of strategic thinking across agencies in the wake of the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 outbreak. Yet it concludes: “None of the risks identified in our 2021 joint report have been mitigated in their entirety and recovery remains elusive. The system is getting by because of an artificially supressed level of activity and reduced performance management and quality expectations – which cannot go on.

“The greatest challenge to the system, as we see it, is shifting back from pandemic exceptional delivery arrangements to a more business-as-usual way of working across the board.

“Where there are signs of business as usual emerging, it is with an exhausted workforce which is still adapting to new ways of working and getting back to normal. Without a coordinated whole-system plan, progress is likely to be disjointed. Given the nature of the criminal justice system, as one service recovers, that is likely to push issues into the next, and that service may not have recovered sufficiently to cope.

“This, coupled with the increase in police numbers and the unification of probation services, as well as a workforce that is under-resourced in some places and/or inexperienced, could further fracture the system.”

The 26-page report reiterates the concerns of the four inspectorates over backlogs in the Crown Court. It states that, by the end of December 2021, 25 per cent of cases had been waiting for a year or more to come to court, and the number of cases waiting longer than a year has increased by more than 340 per cent since March 2020.

“We have commented previously that the system was in a parlous state before Covid-19, and that shock has made it worse. Such unacceptable delays have an adverse impact on victims and defendants, and have a knock-on effect on other criminal justice agencies.”

Speaking on behalf of the four inspectorates, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said: “This report reflects our serious concerns about the ability of the criminal justice system to recover, even to its pre-Covid state. While we commend the hard work and commitment of staff over the past two years, and recognise greater strategic thinking in some areas, the impact of the pandemic will be felt for a prolonged period and whole-system recovery will take a lot longer than initially anticipated.

“We are particularly concerned at the absence of an overarching recovery plan. Instead, each part of the system is operating in isolation and left to determine its own course. Taken together, this presents a very mixed picture and progress is likely to be disjointed.

“We hope this report, and our ongoing inspections, continue to highlight areas of effective practice as well as providing senior leaders with recommendations to rebuild and restore our criminal justice system in the interests of victims and all those who depend on it.”

Commenting on the findings of the report, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “This report exposes as a complete fallacy the idea that the criminal justice system is back to ‘normal’, or anything close to it. In prisons, the Covid crisis has simply morphed into a wholly predictable staffing crisis. The outcome for prisoners is the same – endless days spent behind a cell door, with all the disastrous consequences for both health and public protection that the report sets out.

“In that context, the government’s insatiable appetite to have ever more people in prison is more irrational than ever. The report correctly remembers that the justice system was on its knees before the pandemic struck. What it needs now is fundamental reform, not an obsession with simply looking tougher than your political opponents.”

* Read the report here.

* Source: Criminal Justice Joint Inspection