Cautions are ‘not a soft option’ for criminals, says police chief

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A TOP cop is defending the system of cautioning criminals, saying it is not a let-off and is effective at reducing offending.

Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton is aware some people – including some within the legal profession – think too many offenders are given a caution.

Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, Mike Barton.

Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary, Mike Barton.

“There are fewer cases going to court,” he said.

“But that is because there has been a significant reduction in crime over the past five years.

“I’m not citing police figures; the independent British Crime Survey shows that.

“In Durham, our overall detection rate is up to 48 per cent, from 28 per cent five years ago.

“Our use of the caution is roughly in line with the national average of other forces.”

Using alternatives to the court system has been particularly effective in reducing re-offending by young people, according to Mr Barton.

“We have been working with the County Durham Youth Offending Service,” he said.

“There is a scheme called a pre-reprimand disposal in which the young person does not even receive a caution or reprimand.

“Of 1,200 youngsters who have gone through that process, only 100 have come to our attention again. That’s 1,100 kids who are on the straight and narrow and have no black mark against them, opening employment and other opportunities.”

Mr Barton said cautioning adult offenders can also reduce re-offending.

“It is not a decision taken lightly,” he added. “It will often involve the custody sergeant if the person is arrested, the victim, and sometimes the Crown Prosecution Service.

“The person has to freely admit their guilt and may often take part in the restorative justice programme.

“This might involve a supervised meeting with the victim, or they might have to repair the damage they caused.

“A cautioned person is also fingerprinted and their DNA is taken and put on the database.

“Some may think these are more effective sanctions than a discharge or fine at court.”

Cautioning minor offenders helps free police resources to deal with more serious crime.

“If one of my officers arrests a shoplifter, the officer is off the streets for at least six hours doing the paperwork.”

“I’m sure members of the public would prefer that officer to be visible and available for other duties during that time.

“Minor cases which can properly be dealt with by a caution can also clog up the court system if they are charged.

“It can take me years to seize the assets of a serious, organised criminal often largely due to lack of court time.

“Why would I want to clog the system with minor cases when there are more serious matters being delayed?

“None of the organised criminals like incarceration, but they like losing their assets even less.

“People might say organised criminals have little impact on their daily lives.

“I would ask those people if they have renewed their car insurance lately?

“In parts of County Durham, premiums for everyone are loaded by £100 because of ‘cash for crash’ and other insurance scams.

“Tackling serious and organised crime benefits us all.

“Use of the caution helps give me the resources to do that.”

Mr Barton said the use of the caution is kept under review.

“I think shoplifting is one area where we may need to rebalance,” he added.

“Cautioning an offender more than once is another controversial topic.

“But it can be appropriate if, for example, the offender has been cautioned in the past for one type of offending, has kept his nose clean for 10 years and then comes to our attention for a different type of offending.

“I have seen some cases where the caution, at first blush, looks to have been given inappropriately.

“But when I’ve looked more closely, I can see why the decision was taken even if I might not agree with it.

“As police constables, my officers have what we call unfettered discretion and I’m not allowed to interfere with that, even if I wanted to.”

In a bid to further reassure the public, Mr Barton is introducing an inspection system under Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines.

“It will give magistrates and other people the chance to look at the circumstances surrounding the issue of a caution,” Mr Barton added.

“It’s an open book.

“We are policing on behalf of the public and we have nothing to hide.”