Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

On account: Criminally underequipped?

01-09-2020

By Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO

CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman introduces a report into the criminal justice system during COVID-19.

It is clear that the ongoing pandemic is continuing to affect the UK’s public services in different ways. The NHS has experienced an immense amount of stress over the past quarter – a story that has been covered, analysed and debated in the public arena from day one.

But how has COVID-19 affected the resilience of less commonly discussed service areas, such as the criminal justice system? Together with the Institute for Government, CIPFA has produced a new report: How Fit Were Public Services For Coronavirus?

Building on the Performance Tracker 2019, the report shows that all three service areas forming England and Wales’ criminal justice system (police, criminal courts and prisons) entered the crisis with performance issues, and still have challenges ahead. At the beginning of the crisis, all three had worse performance than in previous years, based on their 2010 benchmarks for scope, quality and efficiency. These weaknesses can be attributed to cuts in public spending and staffing.

In 2018/19, real-terms spending on prisons and police, respectively, was 10% and 16% lower than in 2009/10. Meanwhile, inflation-adjusted 2018/19 spending on criminal courts was 18% lower than in 2010/11. The figures show that, as a result, prison violence increased, rehabilitation activities were reduced, and police forces tapped into reserves and sold off police stations to meet gaps in funding.

It is worth noting that the criminal justice system’s initial response to the pandemic was strong in a few key areas. All three areas had pandemic response plans in place at the start of the crisis, although some were more developed than others. In particular, the well-established chain of command for prisons, courts and police, plus their experience in emergency management, supported their strong initial response.

Despite efficiency in certain areas, the criminal justice system also entered the pandemic with historic levels of under-investment in ICT equipment. For the police, communications and IT networks weren’t completely pandemic proof, but did work to increase the resilience of the force. However, a lack of digital infrastructure, such as WiFi, file-sharing technology and video-call services, proved to be a key operational weakness for criminal courts, which had functioned without basic digital data, relying on paper for day-to-day processes.

Similar weaknesses faced the prison system, as telephone facilities for inmates were limited, and video calls for family visits, education, benefits planning and early release housing searches were not widespread. That is still largely the case. All three service areas are working with fewer physical buildings than in previous years, with many prisons and courts in poor states of repair.

There was already a large maintenance backlog – a direct result of capital investment being diverted to cover day-to-day spending. As a result, it has been more challenging to operate courthouses, process criminal cases and keep prisoners safe during the crisis.

Looking forward, should England and Wales face a second wave of COVID-19, criminal justice services will be better prepared. There has been widespread and rapid investment in ICT equipment, and courts can now conduct trials remotely. More prisoners can see family via video calls, and police officers can work remotely. Things are not ideal by any means, but the system’s initial response capacity is much improved.The case for adequate, sustainable levels of funding has never been more important. The key challenge will be the maintenance and quality of physical buildings, which were not designed with social distancing in mind.

This will inhibit safety requirements for public trials, inmate rehabilitation programmes and officer training. 

Fundamentally, the issue of financial resilience must be reviewed, assessed and addressed in the upcoming 2020 Spending Review. Without a sustainable outlook, the system may not be able to bounce back as effectively should the pandemic take a turn for the worse.

This article first appeared in PF magazine.