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Response: why the criminal justice system is facing an existential crisis

Insights Perspective


Joe Caluori, Head of Policy

Monday 8 November 2020


Just over a week ago Crest published the results of our modelling of the impact and legacy of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system. Based on our modelling, we concluded that the criminal justice system is facing an existential crisis.

The criminal justice system was already ‘running hot’ before the lockdown. Without any further action, we projected that the court backlog will rapidly increase and reach an unmanageable level by 2024. The Crown Court backlog is projected to quadruple by 2024 and the magistrates’ court backlog is projected to increase by 10 times. This poses a huge risk to public confidence, procedural fairness and effective enforcement of the law.

Unsurprisingly, our modelling attracted a lot of attention in the media and our key findings were supported by many in the legal community, who have witnessed first-hand the pressure on the courts.

Equally unsurprising was the sharp response our modelling drew from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), who responded that our assumptions were ‘extreme’ and ‘did not stand up to scrutiny... such as vast rises in crime and charging which have no clear rationale’. We’ve been very open about our methodology and have published a detailed explanation of our approach.

Like every model, ours is based on assumptions and data inputs, which can of course be imperfect. It is important to say that all of our data inputs are published by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.

Our assumptions are also based on recent historical trends - but crucially they also draw on insights from interviews we conducted with a wide range of experts in their field as part of this project, and information gleaned from our current work on County Lines and Serious Violence. We do not believe that they are “extreme”, though this is - of course - a matter of opinion. However, it seems timely to reflect on those assumptions - and on examination, we would argue that some of our assumptions are in fact pretty conservative.

  • Our modelling assumes a long-term increase of certain crime types due to the economic downturn and unemployment post-December 2020 caused by Covid-19 (especially low level crimes, like theft). The percentage increases have been modelled on historical data and comparable countries. In fact, the increase in our model does not include the possibility of a no-deal Brexit - which is widely accepted to be likely to lead to further economic issues in the following years (the government’s extension of the furlough scheme is a multi-billion pound nod to this), and possibly civil disobedience.

  • We modelled the impact of the CPS interim charging protocol based on the detail published in the guidance, and distributed it to affect low-level crime rather than serious crimes like sexual and violent offences. We have modelled it to end by September 2020, whereas in fact it is still in place, so the backlog could increase a little less than our model projects, while it is still in place. We do not expect this to alter the long-term trajectory, however, because those cases awaiting a charge will at some point still enter the courts system.

  • Our model shows that the 20,000 new police officers pledged by the Government will lead to an increase in the total charged cases. This is derived from the empirical relationship between the historical volume of police officers and the rate of charging crimes per offence type. This is based on published data and the model projects a volume of charged crime in 2024 that is comparable to the volume recorded in 2014, when officer numbers were higher.

  • The assumptions we made around prison and probation caseloads are based on the current distribution of sentences and the current length of serving sentences in prison. However, they do not account for the recent announcement that offenders convicted of violent and sexual offences would serve a longer proportion of their sentence, which would increase the projected prison population further.

We hope that our findings will prompt a debate about the steps that are necessary to rebuild the justice system post-Covid, which is why we have submitted the results of our model to the Justice Select Committee as evidence for their inquiry on the impact of Covid-19 on prison, probation and court systems. Hopefully members of the committee find them interesting.


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