I am staggered to read today that more than half of crime is detected out of court. Since the introduction of what affectionately became known as "Triple S-J", or "Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice" in 2006, the Home Office has been shoving the police bodily towards out-of-court disposals for a wider and wider array of offences. It is therefore pretty disgraceful that we're only managing to dispose of 50% of offences that way. By "we", in this case I mean West Mercia Constabulary, the latest "victim" of a Freedom of Information request by an anonymous magistrate.
What is perhaps more staggering is the fact that this has been reported as news. The phenomenon is no newer than it was in 2010, or 2009.
The Magistrates Association is now up in arms, because the year on year rise in cautions and warnings is seen as the police "acting judge, juror and executioner" all in one. (A more appropriate comparison might be to say that it's the police acting junior clark, rookie solicitor and probation officer all in one.)
Magistrates hate the idea of offences being dealt with out of court, as does a large proportion of the public. The HMIC reported this year that a third of out-of-court disposals were found to be inappropriate - ie the offence was too severe or the offender not eligible to be warned/cautioned.
Yet the police continue to give out cautions like Halloween chocolate, the moment a whiff of an admission is detected. In fact, it's the first question most solicitors ask when they arrive at the police station: "Is the custody sergeant considering a caution for my client?"
For a hardened wife-beater, car thief or fraudster, a caution is neither here nor there. It has no effect on their lawless, unemployed life, and does absolutely nothing to repay the victim of their crime. But in actual fact, cautions are not generally administered to this type of criminal. The majority of repeat offenders DO go before the court, and to what end?
Magistrates fail to recognise that the majority of recidivist criminals who pass through police stations every day are unaffected whether they go to court or not. Their diaries are peppered with bail dates, court appearances, probation appointments and baby-mother due dates, none of which they plan to turn up to anyway. If they do make it behind the doors of the local Mags' Court, they will stroll out laughing a couple of hours later and flick the V sign at the victim who came to see them convicted. Cautions are never handed out to these felons, and nor is any other kind of justice.
Cautions are reserved for those people who, far from deserving to be shoved before the court, probably don't deserve to be arrested in the first place. Just occasionally, a first time wife-beater or drunken squaddie will be cautioned in what is probably an appropriate response to their first offence, expression of remorse, and lack of support from the victim. But most cautions stem from jobs where officers turned up with their hands tied by local positive intervention strategies and senior management pressure in certain crime categories. They're given out to ten-year-olds for antics in the park, neighbours for muttered swear-words, students for alcohol-induced stumbles that they would have paid for anyway. If you're a teacher or doctor, a criminal caution is a kiss of death. You will never work with children again, in fact you'll be lucky if you can even babysit your next door neighbour's kids, or your own.
So the song and dance that Magistrates make about the world of out-of-court disposals is misdirected. Instead of asking whether the police should have placed these people before the courts, they should be asking whether these people should be anywhere near the Criminal Justice System at all.
I suggest that Magistrates concentrate on those who DO make it before their bench, and ask themselves why they keep coming back, if IN-court disposals are so effective.
SOON: this anonymous police officer plans to place Freedom of Information requests with her (or somebody's) local Magistrates' Court. Any ideas anyone?
* For those of you offended by this caption, and who brand it a racist epithet, you may be interested to know that race crimes are considered an absolute priority in Blandmore at the moment. A caution would not be issued for a racially aggravated offence, but if it were, I would lose my job immediately. If that's not Simple, Speedy and Summary, I don't know what is.
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.