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February 19, 2016

Why do we have so many prisoners who are not convicted?

It is one of the cardinal principles of our justice system that people are innocent until proven guilty and should, if possible, be at liberty until the state can prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.  But why then are thousands of people (7653 at end 2015) who protest their innocence behind bars?  For all except murder, terrorist offences etc, the seriousness of the crime in question is not a reason to remand.  Legal justifications include  “substantial grounds for believing that the defendant would fail to surrender, commit an offence on bail or interfere with witnesses”, or because someone “needs to be kept in custody for their own protection”.

Remand is the same infringement of liberty as any other imprisonment ,and can cause the same damage.  People are torn away from their family and communities, and often lose housing and jobs.  And they never know exactly how long they will be in prison – which is not the case for most sentenced prisoners.  On average those on remand accused of indictable offences (ones which have to be heard in the Crown Court) are in prison for 15 weeks.  If you spend months in prison on remand and are then acquitted at your trial, you are offered no financial compensation.

Clearly dangerous people need to be in a secure place.  But is it just, or good value for money, to hold so many behind bars just because they might abscond? Could we not use new technology instead?  There are good tracking GPS mechanisms which can follow people 24/7.  I hear of people being remanded because they are homeless, or because the authorities want a safe place to keep someone while they assess their mental health – none of which seem good enough reasons to use prison.  One of the most tragic recent remand stories is that of Sarah Reed.  Sarah was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) but said that she had been acting in self defence.  She had serious mental health problems but was stable, and awaited her trial living in a flat close to her family.  In October, at a hearing, she was suddenly remanded into custody.  Her family thinks that this was to facilitate psychiatric tests to check whether she was fit to plead. Sarah committed suicide in mid January this year.  Unfortunately Sarah is one of many, including children, who have committed suicide on remand.  And no inquest delves into whether the remand was justified, because the remit of an inquest is simply to examine the circumstances of the death.

Being free until and if guilt is proved is a precious right.  And imprisonment is expensive both for the taxpayer and the individual.  So its worth us analysing whether the thousands in prison on remand really need to be there.