Today’s figures should not be over-interpreted. We are still safer than we were 20 years ago. But the shift of crime online and the rise in complex violent offences is putting the criminal justice system (CJS) under considerable pressure. The heart of the problem is that the criminal justice system is not transparent.
Today’s release of the latest ONS Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) figures has been accompanied by a slew of suitably shocking headlines; ‘Crime soars’, ‘Crime rate doubles’, ‘Fraud and Cyber Crime committed every four seconds’.
After two decades of being told crime is falling, the public are now being asked to think again – with an additional 7.6 million crimes added to the national statistics.
But behind the headlines, there is another narrative taking shape: that of a criminal justice system that is struggling to cope with a sudden growth in recorded violent crimes.
More strain on the criminal justice system
Recorded sexual offences, violence against the person, knife crime and homicides have all risen significantly over the past year. A fair proportion of the rise is likely to be explained by changes in reporting practices and a greater willingness by victims to come forward. But whether or not these figures reflect an underlying trend (and many will argue that they do), what is beyond question is that criminal justice caseloads will increase as a result. And that is bad news for a criminal justice system already at the limits of its ability to cope with complex crimes.
Take recorded sexual offences, which have risen by 41% over the past year. These offences take an astonishing one and a half years from offence to completion in the courts, carrying an average custodial sentence of five years. A rise of this magnitude puts pressure on every bit of the criminal justice system, from the police and CPS who need to improve the rate of convictions, to the courts who are struggling with a backlog of cases, through to the prisons, which are already close to or at full capacity. Yet last year the number of sexual offenders sentenced was 6,233 – just over 5% of this year’s total number of such crimes.
Analysing data to get an insight into CJS performance
Similarly, violence against the person and knife crime have both seen statistically significant rises over the past year. The fact that this follows hot on the heels of a toughening of sentences will fuel those who argue that tougher sentences have little impact on deterrence. In fact, most of the evidence that currently exists about what works to prevent these types of crimes points to the importance of early intervention. Yet many of the levers, from street-lighting to mental health diversion, lie outside of the criminal justice system. Unless the government is able to find a way to shift resources earlier on in the offending cycle, the backlog of cases will simply increase.
The heart of the problem is that the criminal justice system is not transparent. The public do not have a clear view of what is being delivered and the different agencies that make up the CJS do not understand what is happening and are not under pressure to improve.
Crest is working in five forces to gather and publish performance data from CPS, courts, prisons and probation. This would give citizens a clear view of CJS performance, enabling them to put pressure on agencies to improve and to strengthen collective accountability of those working inside the CJS.
Harvey Redgrave is Managing Director at Crest Advisory. Prior to joining Crest, Harvey spent four years advising on home affairs policy for the Labour Party and was a deputy director at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.