Prison remands reach record 12,100: Campaigners blame increase on 'law and order' rhetoric and demand greater use of bail

THE NUMBER of untried or unconvicted people held on remand in inner-city prisons and police cells in England and Wales is at an all-time high, according to a report by the Prison Reform Trust published today.

It reveals that in January the remand population rose to 12,100. During 1993 the total prison population rose by 5,341, of which more than half were remand prisoners.

The main reason for the increase, the report says, is the 'response by the courts to the outbreak of 'law-and-order' rhetoric from politicians of both main parties. Where marginal decisions between a remand in custody or release on bail are concerned, the courts have been swayed into taking the custodial option'.

The trust believes that magistrates have been responding to 'the changed political climate, and to the misleading police, press and political clamour surrounding so-called bail bandits'.

It does not dispute that offending while on bail is a genuine cause for concern - 50,000 known offences are committed each year by people on bail - but points out that, by percentage, such abuse is no greater than it was a decade ago.

While most people are remanded on bail for two or three months, a significant number wait for trial for up to a year and beyond. On 31 December 1993 nearly 1,500 people had been awaiting trial for more than six months, of whom nearly 400 had been waiting for more than a year.

Under the Prosecution of Offences (Custody Time Limits) Regulations 1987, the maximum period a defendant may be held in custody between committal and arraignment is 16 weeks. The Lord Chancellor's custody limit is 12 weeks for London, 10 weeks in the South-east and 8 weeks elsewhere in England and Wales.

A significant proportion of the remand population, 17 per cent, is from ethnic minority groups. Black people, especially people of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, are particularly over-represented. The trust says while black people may be more likely to elect for trial by jury and to plead not guilty, the figures also suggest that 'overt or institutional racism may play a part in remand decisions'.

Stephen Shaw, the trust's director, said yesterday: 'The most telling case against the present use of custodial remands derives from the fact that over 60 per cent of remanded defendants do not subsequently receive a prison sentence.'

Whatever happened to the Bail Act? from the Prison Reform Trust, 59 Caledonian Road, London, N1 9BU; pounds 2.