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Nick de Bois: The use of police cautions is out of hand - they should return to being final warnings

DeBois NickNick de Bois is the Member of Parliament for Enfield North and a Secretary of the 1922 Committee. Follow Nick on Twitter.

Since becoming a member of the Justice Select Committee I have lost count of the number of times I have been contacted by journalists seeking a comment on statistics which highlight the growing use of police cautions, especially in relation to repeat offenders.

Just a brief glance at these statistics shows that the repeated use of cautions is completely out of hand – indicating that they don’t work as a punishment or a deterrent.

A report by the Centre for Crime Prevention found earlier this month that more than 90,000 of the worst serial offenders avoided jail last year; and that number has risen by a quarter in the last five years. Worryingly the number of repeat offenders with at least 15 prior convictions or cautions rose by a third last year to nearly 110,000 from a starting point of just over 80,000 in 2006/07; while the number of individuals with at least 10 previous convictions or cautions was up by a quarter from 112,000 to 140,000.

As the name suggests, cautions were introduced so that they could be given as a final warning. However, in an internal memo from then Labour Home Secretary John Reid (now Lord Reid), the police were directed to give serial criminals repeated cautions rather than despatch them to court. The note, titled “Simple Cautioning of Adult Offenders” also advised that any offender caught committing multiple crimes in a single incident could still be eligible for a caution, and anyone caught committing the same “trivial” offence could again be let off with just a caution – providing two years had passed between each offence.

This meant that a thief could quite easily receive up to five cautions in ten years without ever having their day in court; and instead of adding all of their crimes together to create a picture of a serious prolific offender, each would be treated separately.

Labour may regard some of those crimes from the memo as  “trivial” but it is certainly not a term I would ever associate with burglary or violence – yet such crimes often resulted in multiple cautions. Judging by the reforms to sentencing and rehabilitation proposed by the MoJ so far I suspect the Secretary of State feels much the same way.

It is all too evident that the current cautions system sends out all the wrong messages to career criminals. A repeated slap on the wrist will not deter people from choosing a life of crime. It's simply an interruption to business as usual.

So why not return to the basic principle of a caution, namely that  its a warning and that a first caution should always be a last caution.

By effectively  introducing "conditional cautions" it simply means that a second offence automatically ensures that the offender does go to court. ( This conditional caution should not be confused with the bizarre system of conditional cautions introduced by Labour for non-adult offenders who, if they agree to certain conditions  such as admitting the offence they will then receive a caution and avoid court.)

Yet if a caution were to carry a deferred prosecution; the offender would be in no doubt that if they chose to break the law again – they will be up in front of a court, facing charges for all of the offences they have committed.

While it is true that the courts and the police should always retain an element of discretion; it is all too clear that the current system is failing both offenders and victims alike.

Many first-time offenders deserve a second chance, but a third, fourth or even as we have seen a fifteenth is not justice, but seen as a joke by many law abiding citizens. It's time to correct the mistakes of the past.


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