On the last day of April the Ministry of Justice published its quarterly offender management statistics; the latest quarter in focus was October to December 2019 which means that we have a full data set for last year. Careful reading revealed a number of interesting trends which Russel Webster hopes readers will find of interest.
The prison system
Overall, the total prison population has stayed at a reasonably consistent level over the 12 months up to the end of March this year (although it has been falling by a few hundred every week since the impact of coronavirus as a result of the courts being much less busy and, consequently, sending far fewer people to prison).
However, this headline figure hides some interesting trends:
- The number of people being sent to prison dropped noticeably last year, a fall of 6% in what are termed “first receptions” compared to 2018.
- The reason that this has not resulted in a smaller prison population is that there were 10% fewer releases in 2019, attributed to the developing trend for the prison population to hold a greater proportion of people serving longer sentences.
- This rise in the proportion of long-term prisoners has been, to an extent, driven by the increase in the number of sexual offenders. However, this year’s figures provide evidence of this trend levelling off – there was actually a 4% decrease in the number of prisoners serving sentences for sexual offences in the overall prison population in the 12 months to 31st of March 2020. Nevertheless, on that day there were 12,774 people in prison for sex offences – 18% of the sentenced prison population.
- Worryingly the remand population has shot up by 12% over the last year.
- We have seen that the number of people sent to prison has fallen, as has the number of people being released. However one area which continues to see an increase is the number of people recalled to prison whilst on licence in the community. There were 6,789 licence recalls in just the last quarter of 2019 – an increase of 6% on the same quarter the previous year.
Another area which has seen an increase is the number of Foreign National Offenders (FNOs) held in custody and in the HMPPS-operated Immigration Removal Centre at Morton Hall. There were 9,283 (1,952 remand, 6,639 sentenced and 692 non-criminal) foreign nationals in custody on 31 March 2020, representing 11% of the total prison population, and an increase of 2% on the previous year. The most common nationalities of these Foreign Nationals Albanian (11% of the FNO population), Polish (9%), Romanian (9%), Irish (8%) and Jamaican (5%).
The probation system
The total number of offenders on probation (i.e. court orders and pre/post supervision) at the end of December 2019 was 247,759. This represents a 3% decrease compared to the end of December 2018 and an increase of 3% compared to a decade earlier – December 2009.
Since 2009, the number of offenders supervised by the Probation Service has decreased year on year to 217,359 at the end of December 2014. However, at the end of December 2019, the total probation caseload stood at 247,759 which represents a 3% decrease compared to 31 December 2018 but a 14% increase since 2014.
This increase can be explained by the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act (ORA) in February 2015 where all offenders on a custodial sentence are subjected to statutory supervision on release from prison. Previously, only adults sentenced to over 12 months in custody and all young offenders were subject to statutory supervision. The number of offenders supervised before or after release from prison has increased by 34% since 2014 to 146,786 at the end of December 2019. In comparison to the previous year, that number decreased by 2%; those supervised under post-release alone decreased by 4% over the same period.
While the number of short-term prisoners on statutory supervision has increased over recent years, the total number of people supervised on court orders continues to fall. At the end of December 2019, there were just 106,234 people on supervision to the probation service for orders made by the court, a 5% decline compared to 2018 and a fall of almost 15% since 2016.
The number of requirements attached to community orders has fallen faster than the overall community order caseload. In the last quarter of last year, requirements to perform unpaid work fell by 11%, drug treatment requirements fell by 16% and accredited programme requirements were down by 7%. At the same time, requirements attached to suspended sentence supervision orders were increasing with the number of requirements to perform unpaid work and undertake accredited programmes up by 5% and 4% respectively in the last quarter of 2019.
One of the reasons why it is worth paying particular attention to this information at the moment is that it is quite likely that statistics over the next few quarters will be misleading as their figures will inevitably have been distorted by the impact of coronavirus.
A number of future scenarios are possible. We might see prison populations increase rapidly again as the courts get back to business; alternatively, given the pressure on the prison service revealed even more glaringly by the pandemic, is it perhaps possible that we will see sentencers make more use of community orders again?
This blog was written by Russell Webster.