Sunday, 29 September 2013

Cautionary Tale

So the Justice department is to prohibit the use of police cautions for the most serious offences, because Chris Grayling says that they are unacceptable and unfair to victims.  Existing guidance, issued only six months ago, permits the use of simple cautions as a response to serious offending only in exceptional circumstances, “where the decision maker is able to conclude that the public interest does not require the immediate prosecution of the offender and that if it took place there would be reasons why the court would not impose a period of imprisonment or high level community order.”

As things stand, in the case of crimes which, if prosecuted, must be tried in the Crown Court, any decision to caution has to be taken by the Crown Prosecution Service.  It may seem surprising, shocking even, that offenders who admit guilt for offences of manslaughter, rape or  robbery could even be considered for what Grayling calls a slap on the wrist.  But there may be rare occasions in which such an apparently unthinkable decision could be the right one.  Only five months ago, Grayling’s junior minister   told parliament that “ there will always be exceptional cases in which a prosecution for what appears to be a relatively serious offence is not in the public or the victim's interest and that we should not  remove police officer discretion.” That is now exactly what the government is proposing to do.

Their proposal appears to be the result of a review of cautions launched in April which reported to ministers in the Summer and whose results are to be shared not with parliament but the Conservative party conference.  


Of course Grayling is right that the public have a right to expect that people who commit serious crimes should be brought before a court, but we also have a right to see the detailed results of his review.  There seems some confusion about the numbers of cases which are involved each year. The Press Association reported that “last year, 5,084 simple cautions were issued for the most serious crimes – those that would automatically be heard in a crown court if they went to trial. These included 962 for possession of knives, 1,543 for other weapons and 54 for supplying or offering to supply class-A drugs.”. But possession of knives and offensive weapons is not a crime that always goes to the Crown Court.

We also need to know what analysis has been made of the likely consequences of this policy change. In some at least of these unusual cases where cautions are given for a very serious crime, prosecution may prove impossible and conviction unlikely.   The result may in some cases  be to exchange the  slap on the wrist with its accompanying criminal record,  for no action at all.    

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