A system under strain: How the criminal justice system responded to the pandemic

Last week the four criminal justice inspectorates in England and Wales co-published the first report providing a cross-system view of how the criminal justice system has responded to the pandemic. 

The report praised the commitment of staff and the swift and pragmatic responses of many of the agencies concerned. Actions worthy of note included:  

  • the setting up of a national learning programme by the police to collate and share good practice across forces;
  • the acceleration of digital services across the system including the roll-out of secure video-calling facilities in all prisons;
  • the focus on the health and safety of service users;
  • the continuous (if remote) provision of support from probation services and;
  • the commitment to the wellbeing of staff working within the system

However, the report also recognises the profound impact pandemic-related changes have had on the criminal justice system – much of which is yet to be fully felt. 

“All sectors were already fragmented and significantly under-resourced. They now need to catch up on any backlogs built up through the pandemic, while also responding to new demands – and doing so in a way that responds to changing Covid restrictions and regulations. Without resource, time and support, this risks proving an impossible task.”

In this blog, we explore the report’s findings on where the system is struggling as well as ways in which the negative impacts of the pandemic can be mitigated both immediately and in the long-term. 

Falling through the cracks in the community

Changes to the way many criminal justice agencies work are leaving many of those who rely upon their services to fall through the cracks. The report found: 

  • Probation services are now prioritising public protection work and the provision of rehabilitation services has suffered as a result. The provision of accredited programmes in the community, for example, has fallen to under 10% of usual levels.
  • Probation officers have had to switch from providing face-to-face support to doing so over the phone. People with complex needs in particular have struggled with the change while some community rehabilitation companies have been found to have a poor understanding of the needs of those they support.
  • Welfare problems have become more acute during the pandemic. Isolation from friends and changes to normal support networks have exacerbated existing difficulties. The report specifically highlighted fragmented services which are leaving children subject to a postcode lottery on the quality of provision they receive.
  • Education provision during the first national lockdown was found to be poor as arrangements did not take account of pre-existing difficulties in accessing education. For those who could not attend school, digital exclusion severely hampered their home learning.

Locked in and locked out

The picture in prisons is even worse. 

The report describes the significant backlog accumulated in courts as “the greatest risk to the criminal justice system.”  With evidence of trials being moved back to 2022, the remand population has increased by 22% and is currently at its highest annual figure in six years.

People on remand (people who have not yet been sentenced for a crime) now make up 15.5% of the prison population.

This is concerning because imprisonment negatively affects many of the factors that prevent reoffending. Family relationships, jobs, and housing all suffer the moment a person goes to prison. As a sentence, imprisonment is intended as a punishment. Being on remand is not. Yet it’s results punish defendants in much the same way. That more people, people who have not been found guilty of any crime, are spending longer periods of time in prison  is a damning indictment of the state of our criminal justice system. We are letting more people fall through the cracks and unless immediate action is taken to deal with this significant backlog, people’s lives may be irreversibly changed for the worse. 

As the report highlights:

  • Outcomes for prisoners are likely to be worsened as the delivery of education and other purposeful activities has all but stopped. Only 11% of prisoners surveyed between July and December 2020 said it was easy to access vocation or skills training.
  • Despite many children in YOIs meeting the definition of "vulnerable" that would allow them to attend school if they were in the community, many public sector YOIs are not providing this support leaving them to fall further behind their peers in the community.
  • Prisoners are living “in conditions which effectively amount to solitary confinement,” without the mental health support services provided by partner agencies currently barred from delivering in prisons.

While progress has been made with the roll out of secure video calling facilities and the resumed delivery of certain interventions in prisons, COVID-related restrictions continue to negatively impact prisoners’ lives. 

  • 78% of prisoners say they are spending less than two hours a day out of their cells and speak of increased anxiety, a deterioration of their physical health and increased mental health problems.
  • While video-calls are welcome ((a prisoner who successfully sustains a family relationship is 39% less likely to reoffend than one who does not) they are not a substitute for in-person visits. Prisoners are entitled to just one 30-minute call per month and prisoner surveys carried out from July to December 2020 show take up remains low: 82% of prisoners said that they had not had a video call in the last month.
  • Inspectors found substantial waiting lists for programmes in prison.

Six months after the last Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, warned of “a real risk of psychological decline among prisoners, which needs to be addressed urgently,” the lack of progress made in mitigating the effects of the pandemic on prisoner mental health is unacceptable. 

Khulisa’s response

As a result of the pandemic, like the criminal justice agencies inspected for the report, charities have also had to change their ways of working to continue to support beneficiaries. 

In the community, Khulisa has been able to digitise many of our usual services and has continued to support vulnerable young people at a time when they need us most.

This has proven more difficult in prisons. Having barred charities from delivering critical interventions in March 2020, they have also remained almost entirely offline. Even when we resumed safe and socially-distanced delivery in the community, we remained unable to do the same in prisons. 

In response to these conditions, our team of highly-qualified therapists, quickly developed  “survival packs” filled with in-cell activities aimed at helping prisoners look after their wellbeing. We have so far supported 120 beneficiaries across three prisons with these toolkits and are working on subsequent tools aimed at continuing to support people in prison in any way we can.

We recognise however, that this is not a substitute for the provision of the intensive support many prisoners will need after this prolonged period of lockdown. Unless things change soon, the impact of the pandemic on prisoners’ wellbeing may prove irreversible. 

What next? The opportunities ahead

The joint report by the criminal justice inspectorates has shone a light on the incredible work being done behind the scenes to ensure the criminal justice system continues to deliver services in an unpredictable environment. What the government does next will either make or break the system. As this report shows, we now have a much needed opportunity to take stock of what is working (and what is not) to develop a joined-up system that truly works for all. After all, the pandemic has made it clear that our current, fragmented, system is no longer fit-for-purpose. 

All four Chief Inspectors were clear that many of the issues highlighted above were already present in a chronically and systemically underfunded criminal justice system. COVID-19, in exacerbating these issues, has brought them to the fore. While the report submits that these risks have now reached a critical level from which the system will not recover without significant investment, the findings in this report also raise a number of opportunities.

The acceleration of digital technology across prisons is an innovation that deserves note. As the Centre for Social Justice highlight in their ‘Digital Technology in Prisons’ report:

Prisoners are among the most digitally excluded constituency in the UK, yet the use of digital platforms for meeting basic needs has now become more societally ingrained than ever before. The use of digital platforms for social, educational and professional purposes throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has entrenched the position of digital as an essential rather than a luxury.

While partner agencies are currently unable to deliver programmes in prison, the infrastructure for them to do so digitally through secure video-call facilities is already there. As the report shows, prisoners are in critical need of mental health support as well as access to education and training. Many charities, like Khulisa, have already developed a suite of online programmes and only need the green light to begin delivering vital support digitally. The system is struggling and the third sector is one part of it that may help in relieving the burden. 

We are already doing this well in the community (read Isla’s story here). There is no reason why we cannot do so in prisons as well. 

If you  are interested in reading about the experience of people in prison during the pandemic, as well as the difference a kinder and more compassionate criminal justice system can make, pre-order your e-copy of our new book, ‘Humane Justice: What role do kindness, hope and compassion play in the criminal justice system here

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