As you may have seen in the news, today the government has announced that it’s going to be reviewing how us officers make decisions as to when it’s appropriate to issue cautions to offenders.
Whilst the figures suggest that overall use of police cautions has fallen by over 40% during the past five years, concerns have been raised that cautions have sometimes been issued to repeat offenders and for offences that appear serious enough to have been put before the courts.
Understanding what cautions are, how decisions are reached to issue them and why they are useful is important in understanding the role they play in the criminal justice system.
Starting off, a caution isn’t a conviction and so as you may have read on my CRB blog last year, doesn’t need to be disclosed when applying for job unless specifically asked about.
A caution is closer to an official warning from the police, having admitted guilt a person being issued a caution signs a caution form in custody and the matter is finalised there and then. We deem the associated crime ‘detected’ or solved and the case is closed.
Cautions can be ‘simple’ or ‘conditional’, the latter meaning that they are subject to appropriate conditions, say paying compensation, and there are similar options that we can use for under eighteens too.
Following considerations about what is in the public interest, we make decisions when deciding about how to dispose of a case by looking at all circumstances.
An offender’s previous offending history is obviously an important part in looking at whether they might be eligible for a caution.
If someone has come to the attention of the police for the first time, a caution may be the way forward as it offers that person a chance to get back on track, to make amends, to ensure that they don’t repeat the same mistake.
Working in the other way though, someone whose criminal record shows they’ve done the same sort of thing over and again will need some stronger intervention and so may well find themselves shipped off to court.
In the West Midlands, we use ‘gravity scores’ by which each offence category is given a score according to how serious it is, mitigating and aggravating circumstances are then considered which alter the score accordingly.
The final score, between one and four, indicates whether a caution would be appropriate or not.
This helps ensure that decisions about issuing cautions are consistent across the force.
As for why cautions are a useful option, I’d disagree that there’s a motivation for issuing them on the basis that police “don’t have to prepare so much paperwork” as the Magistrates’ Association has suggested.
Rather, public interest is I think the larger consideration with it simply not being the best option in terms of cost, time or use of resources to send someone who has admitted guilt to a low level offence to court when a more proportionate option is available.
Of course to the victim no offence is ‘low level’ and their views are important in deciding what is the right course of action.
Charging someone rather than issuing a caution does indeed require some extra work, a relatively short ‘first hearing’ file, but this is done electronically and shouldn’t take much longer than an hour or two to put together.
As the Ministry of Justice has announced, the review is wider ranging than simply examining whether cautions are being issued appropriately and seeks to establish also whether they are issued consistently across forces and how the acceptance of a caution impacts upon individuals.
Due to be published in May, the findings are likely to be very interesting, particularly in terms of showing to what extent the way that cautions are viewed and employed varies around the country.