Belfast Telegraph

'Soft' justice system blamed as one in five robbers avoids jail

By Adrian Rutherford

Sex offenders, fraudsters and burglars were among more than 6,000 criminals who were let off with a caution in a single year.

A fifth of all convicted robbers also escaped jail, new figures show.

It will raise fears that our justice system is becoming too soft.

The statistics are contained in a report examining how Northern Ireland's courts dealt with offenders.

The report by the Department of Justice found almost 35,000 people came before the courts during 2013.

They included 1,549 who were aged under 18.

The report also reveals:

  • The most common prosecution was for a motoring offence, accounting for nearly 40% of all court appearances;
  • Some 83% of all prosecutions resulted in a conviction;
  • People aged between 18 and 24 were most likely to come before the courts, making up 29% of all prosecutions last year.

One of the most contentious ways of dealing with offenders is through the use of out-of-court disposals.

During 2013 some 7,752 diversionary disposals were issued.

Although these remain on a person's criminal record for 12 months, they are not a conviction.

Among those dealt with in this way was Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly (right) after he confronted a convoy of armoured PSNI Land Rovers.

Most of the diversionary disposals mentioned in the DoJ report - 6,265 or 81% - were dealt with by way of a caution.

Around a fifth (1,254) were issued for drug offences, while motoring crimes accounted for another 1,078 cautions.

However, there were also incidents of cautions being issued for more serious crimes.

Nineteen sex offenders received cautions, as did 96 people who possessed an offensive weapon and 47 burglary culprits.

A caution was also handed out to 67 people who committed fraud.

It will cause anger with cautions viewed by many as little more than a slap on the wrist.

Young people - those aged 24 and under - accounted for more than half of all diversionary disposals.

The report shows that around one in eight people who appear before the courts are handed a custodial sentence.

Motoring offences are least likely to incur a prison term - just 1.7% of the 12,566 cases dealt with last year resulted in custody.

Excluding murder and manslaughter, which are covered by the violent offences category, robbery was most likely to result in prison.

Yet 20% of robbers - around one in every five - are not jailed.

The report also shows the vast majority (79.1%) caught in possession of a weapon escape jail, as do 85% of drug offenders.

Monetary penalties were the most frequently used method of punishment at courts last year - with 55% of cases ending with a fine.

A community service order was imposed for one in every eight cases.

According to the research, men are far more likely to end up in trouble. Males accounted for 84% of all prosecutions in 2013.

Background

A diversionary disposal is an alternative to prosecution. It is granted depending on the seriousness and circumstances of the offence, and the offender in each case. The most common form of disposal is a caution, which is a formal reprimand by police. Although not a conviction, it is recorded on a person's criminal record for a period of 30 months for youths and five years for adults.

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