Criminal justice in the UK 'smaller, but tougher'

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Criminal justice across the UK has got smaller, but tougher, over recent years, according to a new briefing from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. While recorded crime, prosecutions and convictions have all fallen over the past decade, this 'justice dividend' has yet to be seen in the number of people in prison, which have continued to rise.

The briefing – Trends in criminal justice spending, staffing and populations – forms part of the UK Justice Policy Review programme of activities, under which the Centre offers in-depth analysis of criminal justice policy and data developments across the UK. It finds that:

  • Crime recorded by the police fell across the UK by 20 per cent between 2005-2006 and 2015-2016, from 6.1 million to 4.9 million. Over a shorter period – between 2009-2010 to 2015-16 – recorded crime across the UK rose marginally from 4.8 to 4.9 million.
  • Prosecutions across the UK fell from 1.9 million in 2009-2010 (the earlier year for which comparative figures are available) to 1.6 million in 2015-16, a fall of 12 per cent. Convictions during the same period fell 11 per cent, from 1.6 to 1.4 million.
  • Court fines issued by courts across the UK fell by 6 per cent between 2009-2010 and 2015-2016, from just over 1 million to 960,000.
  • Community sentences fell from 211,000 in 2009-2010 to 135,000 in 2015-2016, a reduction of 36 per cent.
  • The number of prison sentences handed out fell by nine per cent from 118,457 in 2009-2010 to 107,439 in 2015-16.
  • Real terms spending on criminal justice fell by 15 per cent between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016.

Despite this major shrinkage in the size and scale of criminal justice across the UK, the prison population has remained stubbornly high. Between 2009-2010 and 2015-2016 it remained flat at around 95,500. over a longer period – 2005-2006 to 2015-2016 – it went up by 11 per cent, from 85,300 to 94,600.

The UK has three criminal justice jurisdictions: England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The briefing also highlights some important differences between these three jurisdictions. For instance:

  • Real terms criminal justice spending fell much more sharply in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (around 16 per cent) than it did in Scotland (around six per cent).
  • Between 2006 and 2016, police officer numbers fell in England and Wales by 13 per cent, and in Northern Ireland by 23 per cent. In Scotland, they increased, by seven per cent.
  • Prison and probation staffing grew in Scotland, while it fell in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Between 2009-2010 and 2015-2016, the number of community sentences issued by the courts fell by 20 per cent in Northern Ireland, and by 41 per cent in England and Wales. In Scotland, they increased by 16 per cent.

Reacting to the findings, Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said, "While criminal justice across the UK has become smaller in recent years. It has also become tougher.

"There have been welcome reductions in spending, and a fall in the number of police officers and other criminal justice workers. Yet the prison population has grown over the past decade and remains stubbornly high.

"Through our continued overuse of imprisonment, in often disgraceful conditions, we are squandering a potential justice dividend. We should be aiming to be doing less with less, including reducing our currently high prison population."

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