PROSECUTORS have been urged not to charge criminals unless the offence is serious in the latest bid to avoid an outbreak of coronavirus in prisons.
The latest guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service tells prosecutors to instead issue cautions and community sentences where possible.
And it advises them to accept guilty pleas to shorten trials and cut down on contact time in courts. Prosecutors are asked to prioritise the most serious criminal cases during the crisis.
It is the latest sign of how the coronavirus pandemic is causing havoc in the justice system. Yesterday new figures revealed that Covid-19 had broken out in half of all jails.
As of last night, 207 prisoners had tested positive across 57 prisons, plus 62 prison staff across 28 jails.
Prisons Minister Lucy Frazer told the Commons Justice Committee that 2,000 extra cells are being installed in prisons to create more space.
This is a four-fold increase on what the Ministry of Justice had announced just a week before.
It comes after the Government approved early release for 4,000 low-risk prisoners to ease the strain of the virus on jails.
‘AN EXPANDING PIPELINE OF CASES’
The CPS guidance advises prosecutors to consider “whether an out of court disposal may be an appropriate response” with “less serious” crimes – such as cautions and community resolutions.
They are also asked to consider accepting a guilty plea “to some, but not all charges, or to a less serious offence, would enable the court to pass a sentence that matches the seriousness of the offending”.
The guidance tells prosecutors that the crisis is “producing an expanding pipeline of cases waiting to be heard”, that any significant delay in criminal proceedings “may impact adversely on victims, witnesses and defendants, in some cases, may reduce the likelihood of a conviction” before warning that any new cases will contribute to the backlog.
They must also take into account the age of the suspect and how long they have been in custody on remand.
Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill QC said in a statement yesterday: “We must focus on making sure the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority as we adapt to challenging circumstances.”
“And in less serious cases, it is right that we consider all options available when weighing up the right course of action.”
The earlier guidance from the CPS and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) also suggested some suspects should be released on bail for longer periods of time before they are due to appear in court to help the system cope.
Meanwhile the Metropolitan Police was forced into a humiliating U-turn after wrongly convicting and fining a 21-year-old man under the Covid-19 laws.
In what was described as an “astonishing” misuse of the powers, the force used the Coronavirus Act to arrest the man in South London last month and then charged him with possession of Class B drugs and going equipped to steal.