Police being advised to ‘pause non-priority arrests’ to ease prison overcrowding, according to reports

The chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) says “overcrowding in prisons is not an issue for chief constables” following media reports that police are being advised to arrest fewer people to alleviate the problem.

May 22, 2024
By Paul Jacques

Force chiefs are being told to consider halting “non-priority arrests” until there is capacity in England and Wales’ jails, according to a report in The Times.

It says the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) has written to chief constables stating that consideration should also be given to pausing planned police operations that might result in large numbers of arrests.

APCC chair Donna Jones,  said: “The overcrowding in prisons is not an issue for chief constables or police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

“The job of the police is to keep the public safe – it is what we pay them to do. They must continue to arrest suspects as usual so that those who commit crimes and cause harm to others are taken off the streets.

“Managing the prison population is for the Ministry of Justice. The impact of not arresting suspected criminals will have consequences. It is not a position I can support.”

It follow’s last week’s activation of Operation Early Dawn by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to alleviate prison capacity pressures until the introduction of an extension to the End of Custody Supervised Licence scheme to 70 days.

Ms Jones, the PCC for Hampshire and Isle of Wight, said she is supporting her constabulary’s decision to continue to arrests suspects “despite the letter from the NPCC sent to chief constables last week about alleviating prison capacity”.

Chief Constable Scott Chilton said while he is aware of the pressure being faced within the wider criminal justice system, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Constabulary will continue to “relentlessly pursue criminals and give victims the service they expect”.

In a statement, Mr Chilton said: “Relentlessly pursuing criminals and giving victims the service they expect from policing remain our core priorities.

“We continue to be proactive in arresting those who are suspected of committing crimes, targeting prolific offenders and people who are wanted on warrants.

“We are arresting more people and bringing them into our custody centres, and this remains our approach. We are aware of the pressures being faced by our partners within the wider criminal justice system, and working with them to ensure that people can continue to be brought before the courts in a timely manner.

“We will provide the support required, but we must keep the public safe.”

Commenting on the chief constable’s position, Ms Donna Jones said: “I fully support the chief’s decision that arrests will continue in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight.

“The chief and I agree continuing to make arrests in Hampshire and on the Isle of Wight is the right thing to do. Keeping the public safe will remain the police’s core responsibility despite pressures from the wider criminal justice system.”

The Metropolitan Police Service said it will always put protecting the public first. “This means we do not agree to pausing any necessary arrests,” it tweeted.

The Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, Baroness Newlove, said: “The prison overcrowding crisis is placing immense strain on our justice system, with the ripple effect now impacting upon policing.

“Police chiefs warn that emergency overcrowding measures may limit their ability to apprehend offenders, particularly for non-violent offences.

“This has the potential to significantly undermine public confidence in policing and discourage victims from coming forward.

“Victims deserve a justice system where they can be confident crime will be swiftly investigated and perpetrators held accountable.

“We must find solutions to prison overcrowding that do not compromise public confidence in our justice system.”

Thames Valley PCC Matthew Barber said: “It is dangerous, both to public safety and public confidence, to suggest that the police should arrest fewer people because of the lack of prison places.

Today, The Times has reported on an internal document from the NPCC, which advises chief constables to arrest fewer people due to prison overcrowding. This will not be happening in Thames Valley.

“As PCC I cannot direct operational policing, but neither can the NPCC. I am, however, responsible for holding the police to account and earlier this week I discussed the crisis in the prison population with my chief constable. We’re in full agreement that the police need to continue to act and make arrests without fear or favour, not based on problems elsewhere in the system.

“I cannot deny the crisis taking place in our prisons and I do not envy the Ministry of Justice in trying to stabilise the situation. Arguably this week will be the most critical, but even as things ease slightly in the coming weeks, this problem will not disappear. There will remain problems for many months to come, but we do not solve the issue by effectively telling the police – and criminals – that normal policing is on pause.

“Over the last year arrests in Thames Valley increased almost seven per cent – and at the same time overall crime has fallen. I do not expect to see that trend shift as a result of a lack of prison places.

“My concern over the short term measures being taken to ease the prison population go further than the ridiculous suggestion of arresting less criminals. The extension of early release should be a concern to all of us, and despite the best efforts by the Probation Service to risk-assess prisoners, it is hard to see how this can result in anything other than a rise in crime. Similarly, the changes to the recall regime for prisoners who breach their licence terms risk making recall to prison a practically empty threat.

“Those who are arrested and charged must be presented to court as soon as possible. This is not a choice, it is the law. Again in Thames Valley I expect the police to continue to comply with the law and bring suspects to court at the earliest opportunity.

“We all wish to see a speedy resolution of the prison crisis, but opting out of policing and justice is not an option.”

Thames Valley Police Chief Constable Jason Hogg said they “remain committed to the communities we serve by fighting crime and serving victims”.

“We are aware of the pressures being faced across the wider criminal justice system, and we are working to support them as much as we possibly can,” he said.

“Our priority remains to protect our communities and I would like to reassure people across Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire that we will continue to be proactive in arresting those who are suspected of committing crimes.

“In the last financial year we made almost over 30,000 arrests, an increase of over seven per cent more than the previous year, resulting in more charges for crimes such as rape offences (increasing by 17.4 per cent) and drug trafficking (25 per cent increase).

“We continue to work hard and with our partners to bring more offenders to justice.”

Rupert Matthews, PCC for Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland, said the move would undermine the work to improve trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.

“One of the key deterrents to criminal behaviour is the possibility that it could result in a stay in prison.  I, and the public, expect the police to arrest offenders.  And that is what I expect to see happening in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.  I have made it quite clear that I do not expect to see any type of arrests ‘paused’,” he said.

“I have asked the chief constable to keep me informed of the situation in our force area, as I believe it is not as critical as in other parts of the country.  And that’s the way it must stay.

“The public has had enough. The UK’s criminal justice system used to be held up as a beacon of best practice.  That is not the case today.  If our prisons are overcrowded, then clearly we need more prisons, not less prisoners. We need to vastly improve and increase the support to those needing mental health provision. Being ill is not a crime and no one should be penalised for that.  And I have to ask, if our prisons are so overcrowded and we have so many criminals from overseas residing there, why don’t we simply deport those people, instead of keeping them at the expense of the public purse?

“I remain committed to crime prevention, but that’s to keep the public safe, not lessen the burden on the prison service, although to be fair it does that too. I am reassured to know that there will be no respite for Leicestershire offenders.  The police will continue to arrest and charge those who break the law.”

Cleveland PCC Matt Storey said: “I find it very concerning that police forces are being advised to limit ‘non-priority’ arrests and reduce the number of planned operations, due to issues with prison capacity – which is completely outside of police control.

“This places the burden of prison mismanagement on hard-working police officers, who are rightly taking positive action to safeguard victims and detain offenders.

“I’m closely monitoring the situation in Cleveland and want to assure communities that I’m working with the chief constable to ensure this approach does not have an impact on public safety.”

Pavan Dhaliwal, chief executive officer of national criminal justice reform charity Revolving Doors, commented “The latest measures announced are an entirely predictable consequence of the failure of governance we have seen in this area.

“There are too many people being processed by policing for unmet health and social need which drives the revolving door of crisis and crime.

“Both a presumption against short sentences and increased police diversion pre arrest out of the justice system into services for those with needs relating to substance misuse, homelessness and mental health issues should be prioritised as a way of both easing pressure on prisons but also critically addressing root causes of offending.”

Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill KC, said: “Prisons are simply running out of space. My committee has long since warned of the dangers of successive governments ignoring the rise in jail numbers, set against a workforce recruitment and retention crisis and a crumbling Victorian prison estate.

“Ministers and society must be prepared to invest in prison capacity and proper rehabilitation programmes as the current situation is unsustainable – reflected in the reports we have seen this week on arrest guidance and the activation of Operation Early Dawn.

“The Lord Chancellor previously set out plans for an annual statement on prison capacity and this still hasn’t happened. Prisons can’t weather this perfect storm for much longer and a cross-party prioritisation of prisons and sentencing policy is urgently needed.”

The NPCC has been approached for comment.

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