Shoplifters ‘will be let off without cautions’ under government reforms

More offenders will be let off without even a caution for “low-level” crimes such as drug possession, shoplifting and criminal damage under government reforms, says a former chief constable.

Dr Peter Neyroud, the chief constable of Thames Valley Police between 2002-07, said that the shake-up risked frontline police officers using community resolutions to “get rid” of cases rather than going through with a full caution.

He said that officers would opt for “cheap and cheerful” community resolutions to get cases “out of the way” because the Government’s legislation enacting the changes created more bureaucratic “hoops than a game of croquet” around more effective alternatives that could rehabilitate offenders.

Offenders handed community resolutions are “light touch” penalties designed only for the “lowest level” offences where they avoid a criminal record or a police caution. Instead, they may simply say “sorry” to a victim in person, pay compensation or carry out reparations.

Two-tier system proposed

Under the changes currently before Parliament, ministers will streamline out-of-court disposals into two tiers of statutory cautions. A conditional “diversionary” caution focused on rehabilitation will see offenders set enforceable conditions that they have to meet within 16 or 20 weeks.

If they fail to comply, they face prosecution for the original offence. Conditions could involve rehabilitation, such as treatment for mental ill health or drink and drug problems. They could pay compensation to their victim, agree to a curfew or accept a fine.

Receiving this would form part of a criminal record, but would be regarded as “spent” within three months and disclosed only on official employment checks for sensitive jobs such as teaching, social work or healthcare.

The second community caution would be similar to a community resolution, but would be statutory with offenders fined if they fail to comply. However, police will still be able to issue “light touch” non-statutory community resolutions.

Legislation ‘has more hoops than a game of croquet’

Speaking at a webinar held by crime consultancy Crest Advisory, Dr Neyroud, currently a lecturer of evidence-based policing at the University of Cambridge, said: “Frontline cops would rather put a prosecution file in than go to all the extra lengths of trying to satisfy the bureaucracy of a diversionary community caution.

“The legislation appears to have more hoops than a game of croquet. And a real danger [is] that the appetite actually will be for community resolutions. Cheap and cheerful, just to get them out of the way.

“At the end of the day, there’s a real possibility that it ends up back where we were some while back, which is devaluing the whole process of out-of-court disposals by seeing it as an easy way of getting rid of the case.”

Community resolutions account for 16 per cent, or 164,000, of all the 1.07 million offences prosecuted through the criminal justice system in the past year. They are supposedly for low-level crimes. 

However, Ministry of Justice data show crimes of violence against the person, largely assaults, accounted for a quarter of the 132,000 community resolutions issued in the year to March 2021, totalling 34,061.

There were nearly 400 sex offences and 162 robberies that resulted in the criminals escaping court and instead being issued with community resolutions. Despite concerns about rising knife crime, 1,392 offenders caught in possession of a weapon were also given community resolutions.

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