Court cases likely to rise by 50,000: Reform of police caution rules criticised

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An extra 50,000 people are expected to be prosecuted every year under new Home Office guidelines on police cautioning. The measures aim to stop cautions for serious offences, reduce 'drastically' the number of repeat cautions, and encourage a more consistent approach by the police.

However, critics of the guidelines argue that they will result in a greater number of people being jailed for minor offences, and will introduce young people - who would probably not have reoffended - into the world of crime. A Home Office study has shown that 80 per cent of those cautioned once do not reoffend.

The number of people cautioned has risen from 154,000 in 1981, to 321,000 in 1992, leading to complaints that cautions were replacing prosecutions and that offenders, particularly juveniles, were evading punishment. In 1992, there were more than 1,700 cautions for indictable offences, some as serious as attempted murder and rape.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, yesterday warned: 'Giving cautions to serious offenders or to the same person time and again sends the wrong message to criminals and the public. Offenders must recognise that once cautioned they have been given a chance to reform, but they must also know that it is likely to be their last chance.'

He said examples of people receiving up to six cautions were 'unacceptable' and were particularly damaging when juveniles were involved because they could begin to think they could get away with anything.

The guidelines stress:

Juveniles should not necessarily be cautioned just because they are young.

Cautions for serious offences should be used only in the most exceptional circumstances.

Repeat cautions should be considered only where the later offence is trivial, or where some time has elapsed since the original caution.

Police should try to find out the victim's opinion of the offence.

The Home Office estimates there will be 50,000 more court appearances under the guidelines, although offenders will not necessarily be jailed. They could receive more community sentences.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, estimated the cost of the additional court cases would be about pounds 25m. He said: 'The whole point of cautioning is to keep people out of the criminal justice system. More will now end up in custody, where they will pick up criminal habits.'

Dick Coyles, chairman of the Police Federation, welcomed the move and said research showed too many offenders had received multiple cautions which brought the system into 'disrepute'. Many young people equated a caution with being 'let off'.

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