Cautions scrapped in system revamp
Cautions are set to be scrapped in England and Wales as part of an overhaul of out-of-court disposals.
Ministers want to replace existing disposals available to police officers, which include cautions and cannabis warnings, with a new two-tier approach requiring offenders to take one or more actions.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the revamp, which at the bottom-end would see offenders writing an apology to victims or repairing damages but could see more serious offences being fined, removes the "soft option".
Three police force areas will trial the new approach over the next 12 months and if successful it will be replicated across the country.
The Justice Secretary said: " Under the new system we are introducing, offenders will face prosecution if they fail to comply with the conditions set by the police, so that no one is allowed to get away with the soft option."
Conditional cautions, simple cautions, penalty notices for disorder, cannabis and khat warnings and community resolutions will be replaced by a new framework.
First-time offenders who commit minor crimes will face a new statutory community resolution, which could see an offender offering a verbal or written apology to the victim, making reparation, such as fixing damages, or paying financial compensation.
More serious offending will be dealt with by a s uspended prosecution, which will have one or more condition attached such as a fine or attending a rehabilitation course.
As with the current system, police officers will use their judgment to assess an offence.
Staffordshire, West Yorkshire and Leicestershire police forces will trial the proposed system.
National policing lead on out-of-court disposals Chief Constable Lynne Owens said: "Any reform must aim to simplify it in order to assist public understanding and reduce bureaucracy. The pilots seek to test a new approach which gives officers and staff the discretion to deal with cases appropriately. It will engage the victim in the process and require offenders to take responsibility for their actions."
There were 391,171 out-of-court disposals handed out in the year to March, which included 235,323 cautions, 77,933 cannabis warnings and 77,915 penalty notices for disorder, compared to 522,133 disposals given in the year to March 2010.
The proposals come after a Ministry of Justice consultation last year, which found 71% of respondents wanted out-of-court disposals to be simplified.
Richard Monkhouse, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said: "We have pressed hard for a simplification of cautions, so this pilot is welcome, especially in empowering victims.
"However, we need to see more detail on the measurement of the pilot's effectiveness because our members tell us there are existing challenges with local scrutiny panels in evaluating the current regime for out-of-court disposals.
"It's also important that this doesn't lead to an over-escalation and criminalisation of behaviour currently dealt with by informal community resolutions.
"We'll also need to be satisfied that magistrates have proper access to relevant case history on community resolutions when breaches occur and end up in court, something which doesn't always happen at the moment. We hope the pilot is successful in tackling current challenges."
Paul Ford, spokesman for the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents tens of thousands of rank-and-file police officers, said: " If the pilot proves to increase confidence and effectiveness of the criminal justice system, it will be beneficial for everyone.
"It should be noted, however, that lack of sufficient training in this area may pose a threat to its potential success. The most effective way to prevent crime is to have a well-funded and highly-trained police service that is visible and readily available in communities.
"It must be acknowledged that due to austerity measures, policing is under significant strain and is struggling to provide effective support to victims and witnesses, as was highlighted by last week's National Detectives Survey.
"This fundamentally undermines confidence in the criminal justice system and must be addressed in order to allow for the potential positive change this pilot could provide."
Suspended prosecutions would be traced on a criminal record, whereas community resolutions would not, an MoJ spokesman said.
Adam Pemberton, assistant chief executive of the charity Victim Support, said: " As a charity which offers help to more than a million victims of crime every year, we know that many people find it difficult to understand the current system of out-of-court disposals.
"These proposals represent a welcome simplification with the potential to make it easier for victims to understand how their offender has been dealt with.
"We support the use of community resolutions, particularly where the victim has a say in how the situation is resolved and the opportunity to explain to their offender the impact of their actions.
"However, a community resolution is unlikely to be appropriate in certain cases, for example a sexual offence, and it is critical that victims are never put under pressure to take part against their will."
Shadow justice secretary 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.
"Slap-on-the-wrist community resolutions meant for minor crimes have instead been used by the police thousands of times for violent offences. And the public are no longer protected from the most serious criminals after the Government watered down sentencing rules for the most dangerous and violent criminals.
"This Government's actions have cheapened our justice system, leaving the public to question whether this Government is truly on the side of innocent victims of crime.
"While we will look at the details of this announcement and keep a close eye on how the pilots unfold, we will need to ensure that these measures do not impact negatively on victims getting the justice they deserve as well as monitoring how the court system deals with the additional burden placed on them by these changes."