This summary explains how the various criminal justice agencies deal with an defendant once identified, presents the recent trends on how the Criminal Justice System (CJS) response to offending is changing, and identifies factors that may be causing the changes, where identifiable.
Once a suspect has been identified by the police, charged and arrested, the police work with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in deciding the most appropriate course of action in each case. The decision can be made to not take the offender to court, through a number of available “out-of-court disposals”, or to proceed against the defendant at a magistrates’ court.
The total number of individuals, which includes people and companies, who have been dealt with formally by the CJS in England and Wales, in either of these ways, has been declining since the 12 months ending March 2006, with 1.82 million individuals dealt with in the latest year. Police recorded crime peaked in 2003/04, and recorded offences are now lower than at any time over the past decade.
The number of individuals dealt with formally by the CJS for the first time has also fallen since the 12 months ending March 2007 – with 171,100 ‘first time entrants’ to the CJS in the latest year, a decline of 46% since 2007. The reduction has been much sharper for juveniles (74% over the same period), reflecting both a decreasing number of juvenile offenders reprimanded or issued with a warning and the decreasing numbers of juveniles found guilty in all courts. However, per head of population, the rate of juvenile first time entrants remains higher than for adults.
Criminal offences can be divided into three main offence groups:
Indictable proceedings, which cover the more serious offences such as violent and sexual offences and robbery, and when heard in court tend to be passed on to the Crown Court, either for sentencing or for a full trial with a judge and jury. This group includes both ‘indictable only’ offences, which can only be tried on indictment in the Crown Court by a judge and jury, and ‘triable-either-way’ offences which are triable either summarily in a magistrate’s court or on indictment in the Crown Court;
Summary proceedings, which cover less serious offences, are almost always handled entirely in the magistrates’ courts when dealt with in court, with the majority completed at the first hearing. They are split into two categories:
Summary non-motoring proceedings, such as TV license evasion and less serious criminal damage; and
Summary motoring proceedings, such as speeding and driving whilst disqualified.
Until the introduction of Penalty Notices for Disorder (PNDs) in 2004 and formal warnings for possession of cannabis in 2005, the only out of court disposal available to police was a caution. Since the 12 months ending March 2003, the use of out of court disposals increased rapidly and peaked in the 12 months ending March 2008, before decreasing year on year – with 363,800 individuals issued an out of court disposal in the latest year. The increase to the 12 months ending March 2008 coincided with the introduction in 2001 of a target to increase offences brought to justice, and the decrease coincided with the replacement in April 2008 of the target with one placing more emphasis on bringing serious crimes to justice. The latter target was subsequently removed in May 2010.
The use of out of court disposals decreased by 14% in the latest year, with each type of disposal used less than in the previous year. The biggest decreases were in the use of PNDs (101,100 issued compared with 122,800 in the previous year) and cautions for indictable offences (101,300 issued compared with 119,600 in the previous year).
All criminal cases proceeding to court in England and Wales start in a magistrates’ court. Since the 12 months ending March 2004, the number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates’ court has declined almost year on year – down to 1.46 million defendants in the latest period – driven chiefly by decreases in summary motoring offences brought before magistrates. The biggest decreases were for vehicle insurance offences, with large decreases also for driving licence related offences, speed limit offences, and driving after consuming alcohol or taking drugs.
Proceedings decreased by 7% in the latest year, with decreases seen in every indictable and summary offence group. Over half the decrease occurred in the indictable offence category – predominantly for violence against the person, theft and handling stolen goods, and ‘other indictable’ offences.
Around 6% of all defendants proceeded against are passed on to the Crown Court for trial, 96% of which are accused of indictable offences. The number of defendants appearing in the Crown Court for trial increased during the late ‘00s as a result of a greater proportion of cases being committed and sent for trial. However, since the 12 months ending March 2011, this trend has reversed, with the volume of defendants tried at the Crown Court on the decline – with 83,500 defendants tried at the Crown Court in the latest year, compared with 106,300 in the 12 months ending March 2011.
Police remands are the decisions made by a police officer on whether to detain or bail a defendant pending their first appearance in court or send a notice summoning them to appear in court. In the latest year, there were 1.56 million defendants directed by the police to appear at magistrates’ courts (including here those who failed to appear). The proportion of defendants remanded in custody by the police increased between the 12 months ending March 2008 and the 12 months ending March 2012, from 6% to 12% – driven mainly by the rise in defendants remanded in custody for indictable offences – but has decreased back to 11% in the latest year. In addition, in the latest year, 30% were granted bail by the police the remaining 59% directed to appear via summonses.
Court remands are the court’s decision on whether a defendant charged with a criminal offence should be held in custody or released on bail during the period up to and including the trial, or while awaiting sentence. In the latest year, it was estimated that bail was granted to 22% of defendants proceeded against at magistrates’ courts, just over 3% were remanded in custody, just under 2% had an unknown remand status, and the remaining 73% had their case concluded at the magistrates’ courts without being remanded.
Defendants are more likely to be remanded in custody for indictable offences than summary offences – as a result, the proportion of defendants remanded in custody at the Crown Court is higher than at magistrates’ courts. In the latest year, the proportion of defendants tried at the Crown Court who were remanded in custody was 34%, with a further 48% remanded on bail. Of those remanded in custody at the Crown Court, 74% were convicted and sentenced to immediate custody.
Failure to appear (FTA) warrants are issued by courts when defendants do not attend court on a specified date, having either been summonsed or granted bail at an earlier stage. In the latest year, police forces in England and Wales received a total of 70,400 FTA warrants from the courts, of which 88% were executed. The overall number of FTA warrants outstanding – those that have been issued to a police force but have not been executed or withdrawn – has been steadily decreasing over recent years, from 23,000 at the end of March 2009 to 16,200 at the end of March 2013. This decrease coincides with declining numbers of defendants who failed to appear to bail or summons at magistrates’ courts over recent years.
Trends in the number of offenders convicted – that is, defendants who plead or are found guilty – and sentenced at all courts are driven by two factors, namely the number of individuals dealt with through the courts (the trend in prosecutions) and the proportion of those individuals who are found guilty. Conviction ratios are calculated as the number of convictions as a proportion of the number of proceedings, and give a measure of the relative number of defendants who are found guilty within a given year when compared with the number who are prosecuted that year.
Since the 12 months ending March 2004, convictions have declined almost year on year, in line with declining numbers of individuals proceeded against. However, the decline in convictions has not been as steep as for proceedings, as a greater proportion of proceedings have resulted in convictions (reflected in the increasing conviction ratio over the period – from 74% in the 12 months ending March 2003 to 83% in the latest year). The complex nature of the CJS means there are a number of possible factors contributing to this change – for example, changes in guilty plea rates, the mix of cases handled in and out of court, impacts of operational changes, and so on – and it is difficult to separately identify the impacts of different factors.
Fines are the most common sentence given to offenders at all courts, accounting for 68% of offenders sentenced in the latest year, due in the main to the large volumes of fines issued for summary offences at the magistrates’ court. Offenders sentenced for summary offences accounted for 76% of all sentences issued in the latest year, of which 99% were dealt with entirely in the magistrates’ courts, and 84% issued fines.
A different distribution of sentences is observed for indictable offences. In the latest year, 27% of offenders sentenced for indictable offences were sentenced to immediate custody (that is, to prison or other form of secure detention), 26% to community sentences, 18% to a fine, and 10% to a Suspended Sentence Order (SSO). Around a quarter of offenders sentenced for indictable offences were sentenced at the Crown Court – of these, 58% received an immediate custodial sentence, reflecting the fact that the most serious offences are likely to be tried on indictment in the Crown Court by a judge and jury.
Overall, the way in which offenders found guilty have been sentenced has changed over the last decade. The use of SSOs rose steadily between the 12 months ending March 2005 and March 2011 – as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which made SSOs more readily available – but has decreased since, in line with the decreasing volume of offenders being sentenced in court. The number of offenders given community sentences remained stable until the 12 months ending March 2011, after which large decrease in volumes have been observed – a decrease of 26% over the last two years.
Between the 12 months ending March 2007 and March 2012, the immediate custody rate (the proportion of all persons sentenced receiving immediate custody) increased – up from 6.7% to 8.1% – resulting in numbers sent to prison or other forms of secure detention increasing despite the overall fall in offenders sentenced. In the latest year however, the immediate custody rate dropped back down to 7.9%.
The average length of custodial sentences has increased over the last decade – up to 14.7 months in the latest year, compared with 12.7 months in the 12 months ending March 2003. The increase has been driven mainly by changes in the case mix of people getting custodial sentences, with summary offences increasingly dealt with through other sentence types, and longer sentences being given for indictable offences. Further, legislative changes have made sentence lengths longer for certain offences – for example, a third domestic burglary.
The introduction of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (CJIA) in 2008 restricted the use of Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPPs). This has coincided with an increase in long determinate sentences (defined as for 10 years or more), which may also have contributed to the increase in the average length of custodial sentences since 2008.
Further, legislative changes have made sentence lengths longer for certain offences – for example, the powers to sentence offenders convicted of a third domestic burglary offence to a mandatory minimum sentence of three years custody, as introduced by the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 for offences committed after 30th November 1999, have been used increasingly in the last decade.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act, which was passed on 3rd December 2012, abolished IPPs and replaced them with new Extended Determinate Sentences (EDS). Further, it legislated that adult offenders will receive mandatory life sentences for a second serious sexual or violent offence. However, both of these measures could potentially impact upon ACSL in future.
While the number of new entrants to the criminal justice system has fallen recently, the number and proportion of convicted offenders who have long criminal records has been increasing over the last 10 years.
During the latest year, just over 100 thousand offenders convicted of an indictable offence had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions at the time. This equates to over a third of all convicted offenders in the year and is up from a fifth in the 12 months ending March 2003 (70 thousand offenders).
Analysis has also shown that the majority of these prolific offenders already have in excess of 15 previous offences on their record while the numbers progressing from their 15th to their 16th offence is relatively unchanged each year. In addition, around half of those with 15 or more previous sanctions were convicted of offences related to theft and handling stolen goods – by comparison, only 22% of those with no previous convictions or cautions were convicted for the same offence types. In contrast, sexual offences and offences relating to fraud and forgery accounted for 8% and 12% of convictions for those offenders with no previous history respectively, but only 1% and 2% of convictions for those offenders with 15 or more previous.
As might be expected, given that sentencing decisions will typically take into account previous offending history, the proportion of offenders receiving immediate custody for an indictable offence is higher for those groups of offenders with longer criminal histories. In the latest year, 38% of adults with 15 or more previous received a custodial sentence compared to 12% for adults with no previous history of offending. The equivalent figures for juveniles were 40% and 2% respectively.
The most common disposal given in the latest year for offenders committing an indictable offence with no previous criminal history was a caution, with this accounting for 78% of juveniles in this group and 60% of adults.
The bulletin is produced and handled by the ministry’s analytical professionals and production staff. Pre-release access of up to 24 hours is granted to the following persons:
Ministry of Justice: Secretary of State for Justice; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Criminal Justice; Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice Strategy; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice; Permanent Secretary; two Special Advisers; Director General, Corporate Performance Group; Director General, Justice Policy; Director, Criminal Policy; Director, Crime; Director, Analytical Services; Policy official, Criminal Law, Sentencing and Youth Policy; Policy official, Youth Sentencing; Policy official, Out of court disposals; Policy official, Cautions; Deputy Head of News; Senior Press Officer; one further press officers; eight private secretaries.
Home Office: Home Secretary; Permanent Secretary; Director of Crime; two press officers; Chief Statistician; one private secretary.
The Judiciary: Lord Chief Justice; Chairman of the Sentencing Council; Head of the Office of the Sentencing Council.
Other: Attorney General, Policy Official, Cabinet Office.