Criminal justice faces perfect storm of cuts and overstretch

Date: 
Monday, 21 March, 2016

Criminal justice agencies across the UK face a perfect storm of growing demand and shrinking budgets by the time of the next General Election, according to new analysis by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

A rising prison population – set to top 100,000 by 2020 – and inadequate legal aid funding are just two of the threats facing the delivery of justice across the UK, the Centre reports.

Governments in London, Edinburgh and Belfast should pursue a managed downsizing of the key criminal justice agencies to reflect shrinking budgets, the Centre concludes, rather than continuing to squeeze ever greater delivery out of ever diminishing resources.

The assessment comes in the latest edition of UK Justice Policy Review (UKJPR), the Centre’s annual analysis of developments across the United Kingdom’s three criminal justice jurisdictions of England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

This edition of UKJPR covers the final year of coalition government and the transition to the new Conservative administration.

It paints a picture of growing pressure on criminal justice agencies across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as they struggled to cope with five years of austerity-driven cuts. Scotland is a partial exception, where increased expenditure funded stable or rising staff numbers in the police, prison and probation services.

Between 2010 and 2015:

  • Central government spending on criminal justice fell by 18 per cent in England and Wales and by 16 per cent in Northern Ireland. In Scotland it grew by 43 per cent.
  • Police officer numbers fell by 12 per cent in England and Wales and by 14 per cent in Northern Ireland. In Scotland they remained stable.
  • Prison staff numbers fell by 28 per cent in England and Wales and by 25 per cent in Northern Ireland. In Scotland they rose by 13 per cent.
  • Between 2010 and 2014, the latest year for which comparable data are available, probation service staffing fell by 13 per cent in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland it rose by 14 per cent.

The system across the UK also became more punitive:

  • Between 2010 and 2015 police recorded crime fell by two per cent in England and Wales, four per cent in Northern Ireland and 29 per cent in Scotland.
  • Between 2010 and 2014, the latest year for which comparable data are available, the number of people convicted in courts fell by 11 per cent in England and Wales, by 8 per cent in Scotland and by 18 per cent in Northern Ireland.
  • Despite this fall in criminal justice caseloads, the resort to imprisonment increased across the United Kingdom over the five years to 2015. The numbers in prison are now set to top 100,000 by 2020.

Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and one of the report authors, said:

‘During the five years to the 2015 General Election, the criminal justice systems in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland faced unprecedented structural change, growing demands on their resources and generally diminishing budgets.

‘Inadequate legal aid provision is making miscarriages of justice more likely. Overcrowded prisons are struggling to cope on ever reducing resources. The police are being asked to act as social service of last resort as other public services continue to be cut back.

‘The decisions made in the next five years are going to be critical to the future health of the justice systems across the United Kingdom. If the wrong decisions are made, criminal justice agencies across the UK face a perfect storm of growing demand and shrinking budgets by the time of the next General Election.

‘Ministers can continue to seek more for less, as they have done in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They can decide to devote greater resources to expanding the size and scale of the criminal justice agencies, as they have generally done in Scotland. Neither of these options is particularly appealing.

‘Governments in London, Edinburgh and Belfast should be setting out a vision for smaller, more focused justice systems, and embark on a managed reduction of demand on the key criminal justice agencies to reflect shrinking budgets’.