The Telegraph this week reports on the increase in offenders who are avoiding the court system in favour of a quick & easy caution.
A caution is basically a ‘telling-off’. It’s like being sent to the headmaster’s office.
Back in the day when I joined the job, cautions were almost exclusively for juvenile offenders who had never been in trouble with the law before. It was kind of like a ‘last chance’ before going to court & being saddled with a criminal record. After a caution, the next time you were in trouble it was the juvenile court, no questions.
They then decided that cautions could apply to young adults. I can’t remember the cut-off age but it may have been 21 or 24, so up until that age you had one ‘get out of jail free card’. Probably old age pensioners (as they used to be called) were afforded the same luxury.
Then they decided that it should apply to everyone and not only that, but you could get several cautions, they brought in reprimands, which sounded more serious but were the same, and ‘final warnings’, which weren’t always final. It was possible to get arrested several times without even sniffing the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service tea bar in the court foyer.
Some opposition MP has been getting their staff to research the figures which apparently show that 40% of offenders for ‘serious’ offences are cautioned. They define serious as an crown court offence or one triable by crown court or magistrates (so called ‘either way’) which basically includes everything except walking on the cracks in the pavement.
Eight police forces caution 50% or more of their offenders. Either there’s an awful lot of first time offenders being caught or a significant amount of criminals are going without any form of punishment or retribution. Probably, most of the cautions are for very minor offences, which will be no consolation to any of the victims. But significantly, people are routinely being cautioned for violence; some 56% of violent offenders escape prosecution this way. The paper says that in 2007 205,100 cautions were dished out including 276 woundings, 34 rapes or attempted rapes, 130 cases of sex with a child under 13 & 614 robberies.
Cautions save the country huge sums of cash but I’m not sure the true aims of justice should rest on the figures on a balance sheet. Neither that the policy is demonstration of that much forgotten (by the government) mantra of ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.