Update on what's been happening to the prison population during COVID-19

Matt Ford
Tuesday, 15 December 2020

As promised back in July, I’m revisiting my blog on the drivers behind the drop in prison population now the data covering the first stage of the lockdown period is available. 

The prison population now 

The first thing to point out is that the significant fall in the prison population we saw from March through to July has been sustained, although the rate of decrease has been much lower. The prison population in England and Wales now stands at just under 79,000, compared to nearly 84,000 at the start of March. 

Factors affecting the prison population

As I said in the original blog, under normal circumstances prison populations are highly dynamic, with significant movements of prisoners in and out on a daily basis. The balance of these different flows determines whether the prison population goes up, down or stays the same. 

Input factors

Police recorded crime 

The police recorded 210,000, or 15 per cent fewer crimes in April to June 2020 compared to January to March 2020. This contributed to a four per cent drop in police recorded crime in the year to June 2020. 

There were different trends for different crime types. Robbery and theft offences saw the biggest falls of about two fifths. Drug and public order offences actually increased. The rise in drug offences is attributed to proactive policing activity in relation to these offences in the context of reduced levels of other law-breaking, and is mainly driven by possession offences. 

CPS charging 

On 14 April, the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidance asking prosecutors to prioritise the most serious cases, including COVID-related cases, and to consider the impact on the criminal justice system when assessing whether prosecution was in the public interest.

The CPS have indicated that the ability to make pre-charge decisions was relatively unaffected as they moved to remote working in this period. Even though the number of cases dropped by the CPS fell significantly due to the drop in crime, the proportion of cases dropped, as well as the proportion dropped for public interest reasons, rose, suggesting that the guidance had an impact. 

Use of remand

Remand first receptions to prison fell eight per cent in the period April to June 2020 compared to January to March 2020. There were just over 9,000 remand first receptions in quarter 2 2020. It appears that untried remand admissions have not really been impacted, with only 2.5 per cent fewer over the period. Convicted unsentenced remand admissions however fell 21 per cent.

Overall there were 13 per cent more remand prisoners in June 2020 compared to March 2020. There were 20 per cent more untried remand prisoners and no change in the number of convicted unsentenced remand prisoners in June 2020 compared to March 2020. This is down to three things: the CPS guidance prioritising more serious cases where remand is more likely; courts prioritising remand hearings; and a slow-down in court activity, particularly jury trials, which I cover below. 

Court cases and sentencing trends

Social distancing requirements meant that court capacity and activity were severely reduced. In March, almost half of all courts were closed. The move to digitisation accelerated, with up to 90 per cent of hearings carried out remotely, although hearings were still down significantly. Jury trials were particularly affected. For about four weeks from the end of March no magistrates court trials took place. In Crown Courts all jury trials were suspended on 23 March and only began to resume in the week beginning 8 May, but at significantly reduced levels.

The number of criminal cases coming into the magistrates courts fell 37 per cent in this period, from 371,000 to 235,000, caused by the drop in recorded law-breaking. Disposals in the magistrates courts, however, fell 59 per cent, from 342,000 to 139,000. This meant that outstanding cases in the magistrates courts rose 30 per cent, from 325,000 to 421,500.

The number of criminal cases coming into the crown court fell by 45 per cent, from 26,000 to 14,000, and disposals by 47 per cent, from 23,000 to 12,000, leading to an increase in the backlog of 5 per cent, from nearly 41,000 to nearly 43,000.

If we look at trials specifically, effective trials in the magistrates fell 92 per cent in this period, from nearly 11,000 to under 1,000. In the Crown Court they fell 97 per cent, from 2,250 to under 100.

Vacated trials in the magistrates courts, i.e. those that had to be rescheduled, rose from 8,000 to 13,000. 

Sentences of immediate custody dropped 36 per cent, the smallest drop of any sentence, which reflects the fact that the CPS guidance recommended prioritising the most serious cases which are more likely to receive a prison sentence.

As I highlighted in my original piece, on 1st April the Lord Chief Justice ruled that the current conditions in prison represent a factor which can be taken into account when deciding whether to suspend a sentence, as the impact of a prison sentence is likely to be much greater in the current context. The Sentencing Council guidelines were, however, not amended to reflect this. 

Also, assaults, including those on emergency workers, using threat of COVID-19 infection (i.e. coughing and spitting) is an aggravating factor in sentencing for which prison is a maximum penalty. Many such incidents have been reported. 

There were 3,500, or 51 per cent, fewer sentenced first receptions to prison in quarter 2 of 2020 than quarter 1 2020, a drop of 60 per cent. There were around 67,500 sentenced prisoners in June 2020 compared to over 72,000 in March 2020. The increase in the remand population highlighted above offset some of the decrease in the sentenced population.

Parole/licence recalls

Recall admissions into custody fell ten per cent in April to June 2020 compared to January to March 2020. There were 5,900 recall admissions to custody in this period. The Ministry of Justice say this is partly a continuation of a recent decreasing trend, but also due to COVID restrictions such as court activity being reduced. 

Adjudications – extra days as punishment 

Between March and June 2020 discipline hearings requiring an independent adjudicator were suspended, as was the mandatory drug testing programme. Social distancing measures also meant that there were far fewer interactions between prisoners and staff leading to fewer adjudications. The number of incidences where extra days were given as punishment in proven adjudications fell 96 per cent in April to June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. The number of extra days given as punishments fell 95 per cent over the period. 

Output factors


There were about 1,500, or ten per cent fewer, releases from prison between April and June 2020 compared to January and March 2020. A fall of around a quarter in releases from short sentences of less than six months was behind this, part of a longer term trend towards fewer shorter term prisoners as well as reflecting the fact that fewer of these sentences handed down due to the suspension of court activity is registered more quickly as they can expire during this short time period. 13,290 prisoners were released in this quarter in total. 


There was a 35 per cent drop in releases of people on indeterminate sentences between April and June compared to January to March 2020 which is thought to reflect the suspension of in person oral parole hearings. 

Discretionary releases 

Despite announcing that up to 4,000 prisoners could be released early under a temporary scheme, only 316 have so far been released, and it was paused in August. 


As I've made clear, the drop in the prison population has come about because there are fewer people entering prison due to a reduction in court activity than there are people being routinely released. It is interesting that the prison population has remained constant at around 79,000 and not begun to climb again as it has in countries like Scotland.

HM Courts and Tribunals Service management information suggests the number of cases coming into magistrates courts is still significantly down compared to before the pandemic, and there continue to be difficulties carrying out jury trials. The Spending Review pledged funding to help clear the backlog in the courts, as well as deal with the impacts of 20,000 more police officers. One assumes a lower prison population will not be the new normal.

The next tranches of data are due for release in the first half of next year. I'll come back to them and assess how they relate to any further changes in the prison population. Earlier in the new year I'll be exploring what the available data shows about how the pandemic has impacted different groups in prison. 

We are grateful to Lloyds Bank Foundation and the Hadley Trust for providing funding which enabled us to carry out this work.