The prison population has slumped to its lowest for almost a decade, though the crime rate is higher than ever. And a sharp fall in arrests by police - already the subject of a Metropolitan Police inquiry - has led to reductions of nearly 20 per cent in the number of suspects being brought before magistrates in London and other cities.
Legal administrators were last week considering closing courts because of the lack of trade.
Yesterday, after Police Federation leaders said that the figures were the result of a serious weakening of officers' morale, Tony Blair, the shadow Home Affairs spokesman, called for a Home Office inquiry.
Home Office figures confirm that the decline in the use of custody is more than a blip. They show that an unprecedented fall in the prison population began in the autumn - when numbers usually rise - and has continued.
At the end of September, there were 46,120 jail inmates; last week there were 41,480. The 11 per cent drop in some 100 days is the largest and swiftest decline in prison numbers in living memory.
The latest crime figures available - for the 12 months to last June - show a national increase of 11 per cent, and 7 per cent in the capital. The Metropolitan Police admits that the number of arrests in London fell by 10 per cent last year.
Ian Fowler, principal court clerk to the Inner London Magistrates, said that a 10 to 15 per cent fall in the number of cases being heard in the area last year was the first decline he had seen in 30 years. It had forced him to review the future of some of the 65 courts he administers.
'We can't be happy because what we see is not the result of a decline in crime,' he said. 'The public has the right to be concerned if proper steps are not being taken to ensure that criminals are brought to court and punished, if they deserve it. There's a feeling that somewhere along the line some people are not doing their jobs properly.'
Similar reports of falling magistrates' caseloads have come from Kent, Doncaster and Scunthorpe. In Hull, the workload at magistrates' courts dropped by 19 per cent last year while crime rose by 18 per cent. John Astbury, the chief clerk at Hull, said the Home Office policy of encouraging the police to caution rather than prosecute offenders was leading to burglars and others 'who the public would expect to go to court' not being prosecuted.
Mike Bennett, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, alleged that there was now a crisis in law and order.
He said police morale was crumbling. The causes included the undermining of officers' credibility after the spate of miscarriages of justice, cost-cutting, and the looming root-and-branch reorganisation of the service by Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary.
Mr Bennett denied solicitors' claims that officers were on a 'quiet strike'. But he added that when those on the beat confronted a suspect, they knew that ahead of them lay hours of paper-work and the prospect of the jury disbelieving them. 'Many are deciding that it is not worth arresting,' he said.
The Home Office yesterday rejected Mr Blair's accusations that the Government had 'given up on law and order'. But, it said, extensive and continuing monitoring of the reasons behind the fall in cases coming to court had 'yet to produce a conclusive explanation' for the trend.
The decline in prison overcrowding was welcome, the Home Office spokesman added. He offered two explanations. First, the new Criminal Justice Act aims to divert minor offenders from custody; second, cases of 17-year-olds have been moved from adult to youth courts, where sentences are usually more lenient.
However, if the Act is leading to more 'community punishments' for criminals rather than jail terms, the number of probation orders should have risen. But Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said probation orders from magistrates were falling too. 'Perhaps the party of law and order should establish a top-level inquiry into this deepening and disturbing mystery,' he said.
Civil servants acknowledged that the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act on 1 October could not explain the large decreases in court business.
The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders welcomed the news that Britain could soon lose its reputation for locking up more people than any other Western democracy. But Paul Cavadino, the prison reform charity's spokesman, said that neither he nor anyone else could explain fully the reasons for the decline.
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