The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is being overhauled in anticipation of a “bow wave” of more than 20,000 extra jailed criminals who will push the prison population to a post-war high of nearly 100,000 by 2026.
Analysts at the department, now headed by Dominic Raab, have calculated that the recruitment of an extra 20,000 police officers, a potential post-pandemic crime rise and longer jail sentences will see prisoner numbers rise by nearly a quarter to a record 98,700 in five years’ time.
This comes on top of a backlog of 60,000 Crown Court cases that has grown by 20,000 during the pandemic. At least half of these defendants will be jailed by judges.
It means that the MoJ cannot afford any repeat of delays in its £4 billion plans to create an extra 18,000 prison places by the mid-2020s, which includes six new super-jails spread throughout England.
Last year, the MoJ was slated by the all-party justice committee of MPs for providing only 206 of the 10,000 new prison places it promised to deliver by the end of 2020.
New team to restructure the Ministry
The task of restructuring the MoJ to meet this challenge has been handed to Antonia Romeo, the new permanent secretary, in a bid to avoid delays that could hamper the Government’s crackdown on crime.
Two new senior civil servants are to be appointed as part of an internal shake-up with specific jobs to ensure the department delivers the jails on time and to budget, according to an internal communication to staff last week.
It is also understood that two top business executives experienced in big building projects and with digital expertise are being recruited from the private sector as non-executive directors to help both prison building and modernising IT in courts.
One of the new civil servants, at director general level, will be tasked with improving the department’s data collection and forecasting – a key demand by Mr Raab, known to be forensic on data, and Ms Romeo, an economist who has been tipped as a potential future Cabinet Secretary.
The number of prisoners fell during the pandemic as courts were closed, but has been steadily increasing as they have reopened and is projected to return to pre-pandemic levels this month before steadily climbing through to 2026.
‘Possible rise in post-pandemic crime’
“Recruiting 20,000 officers will lead to more people coming into prison as officers concentrate on catching more criminals,” said a criminal justice expert. “You could see a possible rise in crime post-pandemic. These two things mean you could have a potential bow wave of people coming into the system.”
New laws increasing sentences for the most violent offenders are also expected to create a bulge in the prison population, although it could be offset by parallel moves for increased community punishments for lesser offences through greater use of tagging and tougher supervision.
The projected 98,700 inmates in 2026 compares with a low of just 15,000 prisoners in 1945 before an inexorable average increase of 2.5 per cent a year until the mid-1990s. Then, under the Blair-Brown Labour governments numbers rose by a third from 64,000 to 85,000.
England and Wales already has the third highest prison population across Europe, behind Russia and Turkey which dwarf it with their combined total of more than 800,000, according to the Council of Europe.