However, the inspectors revealed that a backlog of hundreds of thousands of hours of uncompleted unpaid work had grown after community payback projects were paused during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021.
By the end of last November, there were more than 13,000 criminals who had not completed their allotted hours of unpaid work within 12 months of being sentenced by a court, amounting to tens of thousands of hours.
In order to avoid writing off their punishments, the Probation Service had to go back before judges or magistrates to get an extension, adding to the pressure on courts already facing their own backlogs of cases.
The inspectors, who oversee the police, Crown Prosecution Service, prison and probation, said this had led to “innovative” approaches to ensure offenders with “specific needs” could still carry out their unpaid work.
“A group of Community Rehabilitation Companies in the south of England, for example, developed an unpaid work ‘project in a box’, which could be sent to individuals who were shielding at home or could otherwise not attend external sites,” they said.
“Projects included making face coverings and greeting cards to strict industry standards, with the proceeds going to charity. The Probation Service has adopted this idea and will deploy it when individuals meet the qualifying criteria.”
‘Hybrid working likely to remain for criminal justice staff’
The inspectors said the backlog was so large that the Probation Service would have to deliver 155 per cent of the pre-Covid hours of unpaid work over the next three years.
Despite appeals by the Government for an end to working from home, the inspectors warned that “hybrid” working arrangements were likely to remain in place for many criminal justice staff in the future.
They said: “While there are some clear advantages to such arrangements, some staff have also told inspectors that working from home or socially distanced offices have reduced opportunities to learn alongside more experienced colleagues. This is something that will need to be considered in developing future ways of working.”
The four inspectors also warned they had “serious concerns” that the criminal justice system continued to operate at “unacceptable levels” in England and Wales and was far from recovering after the “shock” of the pandemic.
‘Thin blue line’ stretched by staff shortage
They said that the police’s “thin blue line” was stretched by a shortage of detectives, which meant low charging rates for many crimes, the number of victims waiting more than a year to have their case heard had quadrupled and prisoners were being held in cells for up to 22.5 hours a day.
“We have found that justice delayed, denied or disrupted in far too many instances,” they said.
Speaking on behalf of the four watchdogs, Charlie Taylor, the chief inspector of prisons, said: “This report reflects our serious concerns about the ability of the criminal justice system to recover, even to its pre-Covid state.
“The impact of the pandemic will be felt for a prolonged period and whole-system recovery will take a lot longer than initially anticipated.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Innovative schemes such as these help support charitable causes, ease the burden on the courts and ensure those who break the law are punished.”