This summary explains how the various criminal justice agencies deal with a 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 September 2007, with 1.77 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, whilst total crime, as measured by surveys of the general population, has also fallen over the same time-period.
The number of individuals dealt with formally by the CJS for the first time has also fallen since the 12 months ending September 2007 – with 168,000 ‘first time entrants’ to the CJS in the latest year, a decline of 49% since 2007. The reduction has been much sharper for juveniles (78% 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 may 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.
Out of court disposals
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 September 2003, the use of out of court disposals increased rapidly and peaked in the 12 months ending September 2007, before decreasing year on year – with 334,900 individuals issued an out of court disposal in the latest period. The increase to the 12 months ending September 2007 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.
Court proceedings and remand
All criminal cases proceeding to court in England and Wales start in a magistrates’ court. Since the 12 months ending September 2004, the number of defendants proceeded against at magistrates’ court has declined almost year on year – down to 1.43 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, driving after consuming alcohol or taking drugs, vehicle test offences and speed limit offences.
Proceedings decreased by 4% in the latest year, with decreases seen in indictable and summary non-motoring offence groups and a small increase (2%) in summary motoring offences. Proceedings decreased by 8% for the indictable offence category – decreases were seen for all indictable offence types, except for sexual offences where proceedings increased by 5%.
Around 6% of all defendants proceeded against are passed on to the Crown Court for trial. 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 September 2011, this trend has reversed, with the volume of defendants tried at the Crown Court on the decline – with 81,400 defendants tried at the Crown Court in the latest year, compared with 102,600 in the 12 months ending September 2011.
On 28 May 2013, committal hearings were abolished nationally as part of wider measures to speed up justice and improve efficiencies in the justice system. As a result cases are now be sent straight to the Crown Court as soon as it is clear the matter is serious enough, rather than having to await a committal hearing. Because this bulletin reports upon the twelve months ending September 2013, a majority of the events reported in the bulletin precede the abolition of committal hearings and as a result, it is too soon to see any impact.
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 1.51 million defendants directed by the police to appear at magistrates’ courts (including those who failed to appear). The proportion of defendants remanded in custody by the police increased between the 12 months ending September 2009 and the 12 months ending September 2012, from 10% to 12% – driven mainly by the rise in defendants remanded in custody for indictable offences – but has decreased to 11% in the latest year. In addition, in the latest year, 29% were granted bail by the police, with 60% 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, bail was granted to 19% of defendants proceeded against at magistrates’ courts, just under 3% were remanded in custody, and the remaining 79% 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 35% (in line with results for the past five years), with a further 47% remanded on bail (down from 54% in the twelve months prior to September 2010). Of those remanded in custody at the Crown Court, 73% were convicted and sentenced to immediate custody.
Offenders found guilty
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 September 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. As a result, the conviction ratio increased from 74% in the 12 months ending September 2003 to 83% in the 12 months ending September 2007, and has since remained steady, fluctuating between 82% and 85%. In the latest results it was 82%. 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 69% of offenders sentenced in the latest year, due mainly to the large number 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. The majority of summary offences (99%) were dealt with entirely in the magistrates’ courts of which 85% were 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), 24% to community sentences, 19% to a fine, and 11% to a Suspended Sentence Order (SSO). Over 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 remained broadly consistent over the last decade. However the use of SSOs rose steadily between the 12 months ending September 2005 and September 2011 – as a result of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which made SSOs more readily available – but has remained stable since. The proportion of offenders given community sentences remained broadly stable until the 12 months ending September 2011, before decreasing slightly in recent years. This reflects a 30% decrease in the number of offenders being sentenced to Community Sentences over the last two years, the largest of any disposal over this period.
The number of persons given a custodial sentence has also fallen over the last two years by 13%, reflecting a decrease in the number of offenders being sentenced, down 12% over the same period.
Between the 12 months ending September 2007 and September 2012, the immediate custody rate (the proportion of all persons sentenced receiving immediate custody) increased – up from 6.6% to 8.2%. In the latest year however, the immediate custody rate decreased to 7.8%. This decrease is driven by a fall in the immediate custody rate for summary offences. The immediate custody rate for indictable offences has increased in each year since the 12 months ending September 2010 from 24.0% to 26.9%.
The average custodial sentence length (ACSL) has increased over the last decade, particularly in the last 12 months – up to 15.4 months in the latest year, compared with 12.7 months in the 12 months ending September 2003 and 14.5 months in the 12 months ending September 2012. Several factors have contributed to this increase:
A change in the case-mix of people getting custodial sentences. In the 12 months ending September 2003 indictable offences, (which have a higher ACSL compared to summary offences) accounted for 75% of all immediate custodial sentences, compared to 84% in the 12 months ending September 2013.
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).
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). Furthermore it legislated that adult offenders will receive mandatory life sentences for a second serious sexual or violent offence.
Due to current recording issues, an estimate has had to be made, using prison population data, of the number of persons sentenced to immediate custody since 3rd December 2012 who were given an EDS. The best current estimate is that 439 offenders were sentenced to an EDS between 3rd December 2012 and up to and including 30th September 2013
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 generally been increasing over the last 10 years.
During the 12 months ending September 2013, 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 September 2003 (70 thousand offenders).
However, there is some evidence that the increases in the number of convicted offenders with 15 or more previous sanctions is beginning to level off and the number seen in the last 12 months is actually down slightly on the year before and only 1% different to the number recorded two years previously. This appears to be driven by a reduction in the number of offenders progressing from their 15th to their 16th sanction and therefore entering this group for the first time, where a 14% reduction has been seen since 2009.
In the 12 month period ending September 2013, based on the new ONS offence categories, over half of those with 15 or more previous sanctions were convicted of offences related to theft, of which half of their first and previous offences were also theft offences – by comparison, only 23% of those with no previous convictions or cautions were convicted for theft offences. In contrast, sexual offences and fraud offences accounted for 8% of convictions for those offenders with no previous history respectively, but only 1% of convictions for those offenders with 15 or more previous sanctions.
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 12 months ending September 2013, 38% of adults with 15 or more previous sanctions received a custodial sentence compared to 12% for adults with no previous history of offending. The equivalent figures for juveniles were 44% and 1% respectively.
The most common disposal given in the 12 months ending September 2013 for offenders committing an indictable offence with no previous criminal history was a caution, with this accounting for 76% 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; Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Minister for Prisons and Rehabilitation; Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for the Courts and Legal Aid; Minister of State; Permanent Secretary; two Special Advisers; two Director Generals, Corporate Performance Group; Director General, Criminal Justice Group; Director, Crime; Director, Analytical Services; Senior policy official, Criminal Law and Legal Policy; Senior policy official, Sentencing and Youth Policy; Policy official, Sentencing; Policy official, Out of court disposals; Policy official, Youth justice; Head of News; Senior Press Officer; two further press officers; two private secretaries; seven assistant private secretaries.
Home Office: Home Secretary; Permanent Secretary; Director of Crime; two press officers; Chief Statistician; three private secretaries.
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.