48,000 offenders in Northern Ireland avoid court by saying sorry
Offenders responsible for almost 50,000 crimes have agreed to apologise for their actions rather than be formally prosecuted through the courts.
In a bid to speed up the justice system police officers are disposing of around 1,400 low-level crimes every month through the use of discretionary disposals.
Instead of pursuing crimes such as vandalism, theft, motoring offences and minor assaults through the courts, thousands of offenders have been given the chance to escape a criminal record by issuing a verbal or written apology, complete unpaid work or repair any damage caused.
PSNI statistics show that over the past 33 months more than 48,000 criminal cases were cleared by way of discretionary disposal.
Among the cases cleared were assaults, speeding offences and criminal damage.
It is the responsibility of the investigating officer to decide what constitutes an appropriate outcome with a discretionary disposal.
While the so-called "speedy justice" practice has helped free up police officers and the courts, concern has been raised that safeguards are not in place to ensure consistency among officers.
"Discretionary disposals allow officers to use their professional judgment to resolve minor crimes. Before this, petty crimes were clogging up the courts, costing vast sums of money to prosecute and taking up a lot of police officers' time," Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said.
But he warned: "One of the big worries about this however is whether there is a consistent approach when using discretion. There was a case in my area where an elderly motorist was prosecuted for failing to indicate turning a corner. In another area, or with another officer, it would have been a discretionary disposal.
"There are indications that there is not a consistent approach and we must ensure that appropriate safeguards and checks are put in place."
According to a prominent Belfast-based criminal lawyer, there are inconsistencies across different policing jurisdictions.
"In my experience, working within several policing jurisdictions, some officers are more eager to dispose of cases through discretionary disposal or fixed penalty points than in others. Why should similar cases be dealt with differently depending on where the offence was committed or the police officer investigating?" he said.
However, the PSNI insisted officers recognised the need to use discretion wisely in order to retain public confidence.
Most of the 48,000 cases cleared by discretion from April 2012 to date were motoring offences, such as speeding, driving while talking on a mobile phone and driving without a seatbelt.
Other crimes however included arson, assault, drugs offences, threats to kill and indecency.
But Chief Inspector Michael Kirby insisted that some offences "appear more serious than the individual circumstances of the case actually reflect".
He said assaults could refer to a fight between two children, while indecent assault offences relate to street urination or 'mooning' involving young offenders or adults drinking at weekends.
The drugs offences involved "very small amounts and cases of supply were between friends", Mr Kirby said.
In relation to cases of arson "these mostly involved young people playing pranks that went too far", he said.
"Other common mitigating factors apparent in these cases are the age and/or physical/mental capacity of the offender which affects the offender's ability to understand their behaviour.
"Discretionary disposals provide a comparatively speedy, proportionate and visible justice outcome which achieve high levels of victim satisfaction and allow a much more tailored response than other disposals.
"However, we also recognise the need to use this wisely in order to retain (public) confidence," the chief inspector added.
In January 2012 police officers were given the power to deal with minor crimes using discretionary disposals as an alternative to a formal criminal prosecution. If the victim agrees, a satisfactory outcome will be agreed with the victim such as an apology, reparation for the cost of damage repair etc. Discretionary disposals do not constitute a formal criminal record.
Majority of cases cleared by discretion were:
Driving while talking on a mobile phone
Driving without a seatbelt
Other crimes included:
Threats to kill