Danny Shaw, Senior Associate
Thursday 26 January 2023
Every three months the Home Office publishes statistics on the ‘outcomes’ of crimes recorded by police in England and Wales. The latest figures show that only about one in 20 cases results in a suspect being charged, with an even smaller proportion of offences leading to an out-of-court disposal, such as a caution or community resolution. The dataset was published at the same time as the quarterly update of crime trends, compiled by the Office for National Statistics, which show recorded sexual offences at an all-time high. Crest Advisory Senior Associate Danny Shaw picks out the key points:
Anyone remember ‘sanction detections’?
That was the term used by Home Office statisticians to denote crimes which were resolved, principally by police issuing a caution or a suspect being charged. Officials also used the phrase ‘non-sanction detections’ to represent offences that were cleared up in a different way, such as when a suspect died. In 2012-13, the overall detection rate was 28.9 per cent; charges accounted for 16.6 per cent of recorded crimes and 8.9 per cent involved the use of an out-of-court disposal (OOCD).
The overall detection rate that year was the highest it had been since new crime counting rules were introduced in 2002-03. In fact, during that period it never dipped below 23 per cent, with charges and OOCDs making up most of the detection total.
The system changed in 2013, when a new framework for measuring ‘outcomes’ was brought in, which was intended to provide “enhanced transparency” and more detail around the way police dealt with crimes. The following year, ten new categories were added to the number of possible outcomes police could record, making 19 in all. Three other outcome groups were added later.
David Blunt, the Home Office Chief Statistician in 2014, explained the reasons behind the overhaul in a letter to the UK Statistics Authority. “This represents an opportunity for much broader and more comprehensive analyses of how police ‘resolve’ crimes rather than the previous narrow focus that could be misused to provide unhelpful target behaviours and did not fully appraise the wide range of ways crimes are dealt with,” he wrote.
There is no doubt that since the new arrangements came into effect we have a much clearer understanding of what happens after police investigate a crime. We know, for example, why some cases don’t proceed - whether that’s because a suspect can’t be identified, a victim won’t co-operate or if there are other problems with the evidence.
And the information provides some clues as to why, since 2014-15 when the new system was entirely in operation, there has been such a steep decline in charging rates.
That year, 15.5 per cent of all crimes recorded by police led to a suspect being charged or summonsed to appear in court. Every quarter after that showed a fall, except for the ‘pandemic year’, 2020, when the level rose a notch to around 7.5 per cent. Since then, the decline has continued, with 5.5 per cent the latest figure, in the 12 months to September 2022. Although that percentage may go up slightly, when the figures are adjusted as more outcomes become known, there can be no denying: these are historic lows.
Possible reasons for the dramatic fall in charging rates include the impact of budget cuts to police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service, which bit most sharply between 2010 and 2019; policy changes which have made disclosure requirements and other processes more burdensome; and the changing mix of cases being handled by police, which has increased the complexity of some investigations and the amount of digital material that has to be examined. These issues were explored in a paper for the Tony Blair Institute by Crest Chief Executive Harvey Redgrave.
One key change has been around sexual offending. The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data show the number of sexual offences recorded by police has almost quadrupled in a decade, from around 52,000 to nearly 200,000 each year. Rape allegations logged by the 43 forces have gone up from 16,000 in 2011-12, to over 70,000. The proportion of ‘victim-based’ crimes that are sexual offences has almost tripled, to 4.4 per cent.
The ONS chart, below, shows sexual offences and rapes recorded by police in England and Wales each quarter:
There are two reasons why the growing number of sexual offence allegations may have contributed to the overall reduction in charging rates. First, sexual offences have historically had lower charge levels than most other crimes (3.2 per cent, in the latest data) so a greater proportion of sexual offences among crimes recorded by police would likely bring down charge rates overall. Second, sexual offences are often complex and take a long time to investigate, which may well have restricted the resources and staffing available to pursue other crimes, particularly at a time when there has been a national shortage of detectives.
One-third of sexual offences do not proceed because victims cannot or are unwilling to support a prosecution. Given that there has been a rise in the proportion of sexual offences, you would expect to see an increase in the number of overall cases which have stalled because victims won’t co-operate - and that is the case. The Home Office ‘outcomes’ figures show an increase in the category ‘victim does not support action’ from 8.7 per cent to 25.5 per cent in seven years.
The increase in recorded sexual offences is just one possible explanation for the overall decline in charge rates; it merits further investigation. But the reductions are seen across the board:
Prosecutions are, of course, just one option. Cautioning suspects, issuing penalty fines, diverting them onto educational programmes or dealing with incidents informally, through community resolutions, provide an alternative to the expense and delays of court proceedings. But there is no sign that police forces have become more attracted to the use of out-of-court disposals.
In 2014-15, 9.1 per cent of cases were concluded with an OOCD. The latest statistics show that the OOCD rate has plummeted to 3.4 per cent, with an additional 0.6 per cent dealt with under ‘Outcome 22’ - a new category for cases in which a suspect undertakes a diversionary activity but does not necessarily have to admit the offence.
Our report last year on OOCDs found powerful arguments for expanding their use; it is a real concern that the uptake is still so low, particularly at a time when the courts are overwhelmed by a backlog of criminal cases.
With police numbers now rising - the latest figures show the number of full-time equivalent officers is now only around 1,500 below the level in 2010 - there will be growing pressure on chief constables to get charging rates up. To do so, however, requires a greater understanding of the reasons why they have fallen so far, so quickly. The outcomes framework, put in place almost a decade ago, gives some indicators - but in-depth research is also surely required.