Millions wasted remanding prisoners, charity says
Courts in England and Wales wasted almost £250m last year by remanding people in custody unnecessarily, a prison reform charity has said.
The Howard League for Penal Reform said more than 35,000 people remanded in custody in 2013 went on to be acquitted or given non-custodial sentences.
Overuse of remand sentencing was worsening prison overcrowding, it said.
The Magistrates' Association said the charity had failed to appreciate the way remand decisions were taken.
Of the 36,044 men, women and children who were remanded into custody by magistrates in 2013, 25,413 did not go on to receive a custodial sentence, according to the Howard League.
With each person remanded for nine weeks on average, and a prison place costing £37,000 per year, that cost an estimated £165m to the prison system, it said.
People can be remanded in custody by a magistrates' court - possibly until their trial begins - if they have been charged with a serious crime, have previous convictions or if magistrates think they may commit another crime while on bail.
A suspect may also have be remanded if magistrates believe they may not attend a future court date.
In the crown courts, 9,844 of the 36,833 men, women and children remanded in custody were either acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence, at an estimated cost of £65m.
The Howard League's chief executive, Frances Crook, told BBC Breakfast that magistrates need to think "very carefully before they use prison".
She said remanding people in custody can be "devastating" and called on courts to "review their decision-making process". She called for more people to be granted bail before their trial begins.
"Our prisons are squalid and our prisoners are idle, yet the courts are continuing to remand innocent people and people accused of petty crime at huge public expense.
"It is time to end this unjust system, which is costing the nation money that could be better spent," she added.
However, the Magistrates' Association said the charity's figures appeared to be based on a misunderstanding of the law surrounding bail, including the requirements on magistrates.
By law, magistrates taking bail decisions must concentrate on the risks the defendant would either commit an offence, interfere with witnesses, or fail to return to court if bail was granted, it said.
If there are reasonable grounds to believe one of those things will happen - provided there is a real prospect of a custodial sentence on conviction - Parliament has instructed judges and magistrates to refuse bail.
There might also be many reasons why a custodial sentence was not given following a conviction, the association added. For example, the defendant may already have spent as long on remand as the appropriate custodial sentence.
Chairman Richard Monkhouse said: "The decision to remand a person in custody is one of the toughest our members have to take. In doing so they are assessing risk and fulfilling their duty to apply the law.
"The suggestion that there is 'widespread misuse' of remand is misguided. Very careful consideration is taken by our members when doing their job in administering the law."