The Government has announced that a review into the use of police cautions will be launched.
Police cautions are issued for low-level offending and minor offences such as vandalism. An informal caution can be issued orally by a police officer and will not have any impact on a person’s criminal record. Formal cautions are usually administered at the police station and a reference to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is not needed. The recipient must have admitted to the offence in question and, although it is not a conviction, it can be used as evidence against a person in court if they are prosecuted for another crime.
The review is motivated by fears that the police are using cautions inappropriately…
The review is not due to an increase in the use of police cautions. Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show that there were 205,700 cautions issued in the 12 months leading up to September 2012, down 12 per cent on the previous year and a 44 per cent decrease on the 12 months leading up to September 2007, where the number of cautions issued peaked at 367,300.
The review is motivated by fears that the police are using cautions inappropriately, such as issuing them for serious crimes and to repeat offenders, which means they can continue to commit crimes without being brought before a court. Statistics from the MoJ are evidence of this: 12.4 per cent of cautions administered last year were for violent attacks, 33.4 per cent were for theft and handling stolen goods and 37 per cent were for drug offences.
More shockingly, as noted by the chair of the Magistrate’s Association, John Fassenfelt, 20 per cent of reported sexual offences were cautioned. He referred to one case in particular involving a priest who was cautioned for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old child. He also noted that 6 per cent of all cautions were repeat cautions for the same offences. When asked why he felt the misuse of cautions was taking place, Fassenfelt explained that one of the major reasons was money. Issuing a caution is a lot cheaper for the police as ‘they don’t have to prepare so much paperwork to bring it to court’. Other reasons put forward for misuse are that the current guidelines are not clear enough, thus causing uncertainty regarding which situations are appropriate to caution.
In light of this information, what is the review hoping to achieve?
Policing Minister, Damian Green, identified that the inadequacy of the current guidelines is an issue that will be addressed in the review. He stated:
It may be that the guidelines were not clear enough in the past and the new guidance we are issuing actually does provide more specific guidance on the exceptional circumstances when you can give a caution even if there is a serious offence committed. It may well be something to do with the mental health or the age of the offender. You do have to give that ultimate decision to the police officer involved but I do think in terms of having general confidence in the system it is clear, on the whole, you only want cautions to be used for low-level offences for first-time offenders and so on.
Additionally, the MoJ said the review would investigate whether there are offences where the use of cautions would be inappropriate and, if so, what should be used instead. Green noted on this issue that cautions may be ruled out altogether for certain offences.
The review has been greatly welcomed.
Lastly, the effect of cautions overall will be considered and how it might affect a person’s life in areas such as employment.
The review has been greatly welcomed. The Police Federation of England and Wales have acknowledged the need for a review, whilst maintaining the importance of cautions in tackling crime. Paul Ford from the organisation’s criminal justice sub-committee said:
Cautions are a useful option for minor offences, and in some cases first-time offenders. The public quite rightly deserve to know the reasons when cautions are used for more serious offences and it is this guidance around the statistics that has probably not been addressed appropriately.
There have been fears that a reduction in the use of cautions will mean that an already struggling and overcrowded prison population will soon increase as more offenders will face trial. However, Damian Green has stated:
Our criminal justice policy is not driven by the number of prison places available. It is driven by a desire to have proper justice so that offenders are sentenced in an appropriate way.
The findings of the review, which is to be concluded by the end of May, will hopefully mean that appropriate measures are introduced so that justice can be achieved. It may be argued that justice cannot be compromised due to an expanding prison population; however, it may be that this is a separate issue which the Government needs to address.