Prisoners will have to wait five years behind bars before being tried as the number of pre-trial detainees rises to a record high due to the growing backlog in courts.
According to the Justice Department, as of June 30, about 15,523 people were in overcrowded prisons without being convicted – a 50-year high and a 16 percent increase from a year ago.
At least 150 people – all men – had spent five years facing jury trial as of Dec. 31, with black men making up 33 percent of those who had to wait the longest. This data was collected by the charity Fair Trials under freedom of information laws.
Almost 2,000 pretrial detainees were held for over a year. Another nearly 2,500 people were locked up for more than six months – after which a judge must agree to an extension.
A top lawyer warned that some defendants were pleading guilty to crimes despite insisting they were innocent because they were being released from prison early – as the backlog of Crown Court cases also hit a new record and had doubled in four years.
It is the latest shocking indictment of the state of Britain’s justice system as prisons come under the spotlight following the escape of terror suspect Daniel Khalife from HMP Wandsworth last week and concerns run high about chronic overcrowding and understaffing.
Jack Straw, Labor home secretary from 1997 to 2001, said it was “absurd” and “simply extraordinary” to let people languish in prison for so long without a trial, and accused the Tory government of “managing the worst criminal justice crisis get over”. system that I can remember”.
Tory MP Robert Buckland, who was justice secretary for two years until September 2021, called for an “investigation and clear investigation into the cases” and warned that “people should not be kept in custody for years without good reason”.
A Justice Department spokesman said the cases with the longest wait times were mostly complex fraud cases or trials with large numbers of defendants that typically took a long time to prosecute.
The Blair-era justice secretary, Lord Falconer, described the years-long waits in custody as “completely and wholly unacceptable” and said: “The government needs a contingency plan because we cannot allow these long delays.”
He called for greater use of markers for non-violent suspects and temporary “nightingale courts”, while Mr Straw said ministers “could do much more to get more courts up and running – including using retired and part-time judges”.
The overcrowding crisis is “worst” in prisons where inmates await trial, said Rob Preece of the Howard League for Penal Reform. He compared long “Kafkaesque” pre-trial detention periods to indefinite prison sentences, which were abolished in 2012 and criticized last month by the UN special rapporteur on torture.
According to official figures, more than a fifth of pretrial detainees were accused of drug offenses in June. According to the most recent data, only 32 percent of defendants awaiting trial were in custody for suspected violent crimes.
Ian Acheson, the former head of security at HMP Wandsworth, said the hard-pressed Category B London prison was just one of those struggling to cope with the added pressure of a growing backlog of remand cases.
He said the pretrial detention system was “an out-of-control shit show” and detaining non-violent suspects for five years was “an unacceptable use of state power.” He warned that those in custody “are often at far greater risk of harming themselves due to their insecure status.”
Tory justice committee chairman Sir Bob Neill warned that the “switching” of record numbers of remand prisoners would place additional strain on prison officials.
It “can only increase the risk of violence” when innocent people are locked up in prisons without family visits or rehabilitation programs, often “in the worst conditions,” Sir Bob said.
The situation “has created a mental health crisis, with suicides and self-harm among pretrial detainees skyrocketing as people become hopeless,” said Griff Ferris, senior legal and policy officer at Fair Trials.
Pretrial detainees are often among those locked in their cells for 23 hours a day in “harrowing” conditions that amount to solitary confinement, “forced to choose between calling family and loved ones, exercising or showering, and are denied access denied education and other rehabilitation programs,” Mr. Ferris said.
He criticized the government for “actively contributing to the remand crisis” by “destroying infrastructure and legal aid” and said he believed Labor had “avoided taking meaningful action” to challenge ministers over fears to be seen as soft on crime.
Shadow justice minister Shabana Mahmood claimed the government “simply cannot fulfill its essential duties” and insisted Labor would “take immediate action” to increase the number of Crown prosecutors by at least half and build promised but undelivered prison places the Tories.
“Our prisons are unsafe and unable to provide basic services,” warned Dita Saliuka, whose brother Liridon, 29, died by suicide at HMP Belmarsh on January 2, 2020, weeks after his trial was postponed for six months. after he had already spent five months waiting.
Ms Saliuka warned that those who, like her brother, see their detention periods extended are “waiting and waiting and losing hope”.
Referring to those who were eventually acquitted, she added: “You sit in prison for years and then you’re found not guilty – what happens after that?” You could lose your family, your job, your house, your employment and your relationships . You don’t get anything back from it, you don’t get anything back at all.”
Conversely, Richard Atkinson, assistant vice-president of the Law Society, said “there are certainly cases” where defendants were held in custody for longer than their potential sentence – and some chose to plead guilty to get out sooner, despite lawyers advising otherwise .
“You have to tell clients” that “you will probably have to wait six to eight months” before they are tried, whereupon they may take the “pragmatic” but inadvisable position: “I might as well just plead now… “It’s a loss.”-lose,” Mr. Atkinson said.
The court backlog that fueled the crisis also rose to a record high of 64,000 cases in July, figures released this week show – despite the government’s pledge to reduce it to 53,000.
a senior legal source said The Independent that the number of cases will instead likely increase by the same amount, reaching 75,000 in March 2025.
Although there were 100,000 sitting days in crown courts last year, the highest since 2017/18, the legal source said this was still “shockingly low” from the 110,000 days recommended – and pointed out – by the judiciary select committee last April that the backlog is now twice as large as in 2018.
Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said the resulting long remand periods were “totally unacceptable”. He referred to the government’s decision to close half of all courts in England and Wales between 2010 and 2019, adding: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
In comments echoed by Sir Bob, Mr Atkinson warned that calls for more police officers and calls for tougher sentences at a time when the courts are in crisis showed “a lack of joined-up thinking” in government.
“If you’re going to put more in the pipe, you’d better make the pipe a little bigger,” the lawyer told the bar. “They need more resources, but we have seen decades of cuts in the number of courts, in investment in the remaining courthouses and in legal aid.”
The Justice Department said it is working hard to deliver faster justice through unlimited court sitting days, more remote hearings and keeping Nightingale Courts open.
“Judges make remand decisions independently of the government based on their risk of reoffending or absconding, but this government has done more than any other to tackle discrimination in the criminal justice system, including diverting ethnic minority youth away from crime, increasing diversity in ours “The world’s leading independent judiciary,” the statement continued.