Changes to bail, which means police only have a month to bring a charge after an arrest, has led to a surge in the number of suspects “Released Under Investigation” (RUI) without any conditions.
These include those accused of serious offences such as GBH, aggravated burglary, sex crimes and domestic abuse.
In London alone, police are actively searching for more than 17,000 suspected criminals who have slipped the net.
Yet more than 15,000 were Released Under Investigation by the Metropolitan Police between April and August last year.
Under the old system, bail could be reapplied until officers had gathered enough evidence to make their case, or decide there owes no further action to be taken against a suspect.
But the rules changed in April last year following complaints about cases against celebrities such as Paul Gambaccini, who was falsely accused of sex offences and kept on bail for almost a year.
The new 28 day pre-charge bail limit allows police to ask for extensions, but the bar has been set so high that many defence solicitors have revealed they have never seen it done.
Data collated by the College of Policing showed a five-fold increase in the use of RUIs, as police investigators bypass the bail system altogether.
Since the RUI system is unconditional, suspects are not obliged to stay away from alleged victims or even provide police with a change of address.
“The real scandal is that repeat offenders think it’s heaven”, said solicitor Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Court Solicitors Association.
“Under the old rules a bailed suspect might have been ordered not to approach his alleged victim. Because RUIs are unconditional, if a suspect does commit a further offence, arguably, it’s not seen as an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing.
“Also, because there is no deadline for police to produce their evidence, detection rates are slipping. Tens of thousands of innocent or guilty people aren’t being processed or given quick conclusions.. It’s a sea of unresolved allegations.”
Oliver Kirk, of Old Bailey solicitors, said: “If this was designed to refocus police efforts, it’s actually had the opposite effect.
“I can tell you about one individual who was arrested for GBH in April, and then again in May, and arrested for aggravated burglary in June. These separate offences are very serious, yet he was given an RUI for each of them. Repeat offenders can just think – ‘well, they haven’t bailed me so they ’cant be…