Saturday, 1 November 2014

Police cautions to be scrapped

A PC, no doubt busy "wrongly dishing out" a caution

I read a news story this morning telling me that Chris "Failing" Grayling is to scrap police cautions so that victims of crime do not feel as though offenders are "walking away scot-free".

First, I should say that I don't hold any firm views on whether this is a good idea or not; however, being deeply cynical of all noises emanating from the mouths of politicians I am inclined to see this as populist hot air.

What are police cautions?  In case you don't know and, like Mr Grayling, believe that a police caution means nothing I shall explain what these things are.  The police can issue a caution where a crime has been committed, somebody has admitted to the crime and has expressed regret.  They will not usually be given if the offender has received a previous caution or has been convicted of a similar offence.  They are useful where it might not be wise to criminalise somebody, e.g. a 12 year old stealing some make up - the cost of prosecution and the resulting criminal record may make some people think that going down the court route is a waste of time, money and resources.  It is also likely to have repercussions for the child later on and may make future offending more likely as a result.

There are two types of police caution: simple and conditional.  Both are normally only used for minor offences.  A simple caution is the end of the matter; however, the caution is recorded on a person's criminal record, although it is not a conviction, and may be disclosable in certain situations.  It will show up on an enhanced criminal records check.  A conditional caution is the same as a simple caution except that the offender must complete some additional task, e.g. paying compensation, writing a letter of apology to the victim, cleaning graffiti or taking part in a drug rehab course.

Mr Grayling proposes a two-tier system whereby first time offenders would receive a "statutory community resolution", which the BBC says, "could see them offering a verbal or written apology to their victim, paying compensation or fixing damage."  The Ministry of Justice has said that community resolutions would not be recorded on criminal record.  So, it's basically a conditional caution but one that is not going to show up on an enhanced criminal records check... I'd call that watering down the existing system but then what do I know?

More serious offences will receive a suspended prosecution that could see offenders paying a fine or attending a drug rehab course.  The wording of the announcement suggests that suspended prosecutions could be issued to second (or more) offenders and that rehab would not be available for those handed a community resolution.  I also can't help but notice that neither the community resolution nor the suspended prosecution currently allows for compensation to be paid to the victim, unlike existing conditional cautions!  The fact that suspended prosecutions are designated for "more serious offences" also suggests that they will be used for offences that would currently be outside the scope of the existing cautioning system in ordinary situations.

The proposals toughen up the cautioning system by abolishing the simple caution; however, they also appear to water down the system in other ways.  For example, by appearing to allow cautions for second time offenders and for more serious offences.

I also wonder who is going to administer this new system?  In the 12-months to September 2012 there were 205,700, which is a 44% fall from the year ending September 2007.  If we are now going to have 205,700 people either being prosecuted or taking part in the new community resolutions and suspended prosecutions then we are going to need a LOT more people monitoring, organising and running these schemes.  Do the Government expect the police to do it?  If so, I can promise you they'll be a lot less bobbies on the beat.  They can't expect the National Probation Service to do it since they just effectively abolished them as well and handed the work to their mates in the private sector (50% of the work went to a major Tory donor and a company run by the wife of the Chief Inspector of Probation - incidentally the inspector was appointed by Grayling and the contract was awarded by... er... Grayling).  So, who exactly is going to run this system and check that the conditions imposed are actually being complied with?

Sadly, in the modern "talk tough... talk bullshit" culture in which politicians exist I don't expect any reasoned debate from the opposition after Sadiq Khan said, "Under David Cameron's government, too many criminals have been getting away with serious crimes.  On their watch, cautions have been dished out wrongly for serious sexual and violent crimes like rape."  It's worth saying that in 2011/12 there were 16,000 reported rapes the police had a detection rate of 30% whereas only 21% of robberied and 13% of burglaries ended with a sanctioned detection, i.e. were solved.  Of those 16,000 rape reports there were 19 cautions "dished out" for rape and of those 19, 16 were given to offenders under 18 years of age.  I'd hardly describe a caution rate of 0.1% as "dishing out" cautions and would suggest that it is an indication of prosecutors and police using their discretion to give a caution only when appropriate.

Sadly, Mr Khan obviously doesn't know what he is talking about, to suggest that cautions are simply "dished out wrongly" shows either a shocking failure to understand the Criminal Justice System or a willingness to play politics with an important public system designed to protect society and individuals.

Mr Khan's words about cautions being "dished out" are particularly galling given that in 2007 (when Mr Khan's party was in power) there were 367,300 cautions handed out compared to 205,700 in 2012.  Also in 2007 there were 27 cautions "dished out" to men accused of rape or attempted rape of a female, which is higher than the 19 in 2012.  But, as a politician Mr Khan will have no interest in letting facts get in the way of a good political football.

Politicians like to play politics and they don't care if they play it with each other, rape victims, child abuser victims or anyone else.