Some criminals 'should avoid court'

Minor criminals should circumvent the court system and instead have the chance to join supervised community programmes that would leave them without a criminal record in order to cut reoffending rates, a think-tank has said.

Only more serious violent criminals should face courts, with low-risk offenders who are arrested offered the option to join a police-run programme that seeks to use the threat of prosecution to them to change their ways, according to the Civitas paper.

If offenders complete the programme, which would include curfews, unannounced home checks and voluntary relocation programmes alongside drug treatment and "psychotherapeutic treatment for past trauma", proceedings against them would be dropped.

Cambridge University criminologists Professor Lawrence Sherman and Peter Neyroud, a former chief constable of Thames Valley Police, argue that the current legal thinking and court system is too slow and expensive at a time of heavy budget cuts and that its cheaper, faster ideas of "deferred prosecution" should be piloted.

Prof Sherman said the UK needed to get away from what he said was the "Tony Blair method - prosecuting everyone all the time" and get back to ideas he said would have been recognised by Robert Peel, who founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829.

"The idea that everyone has to have their day in court is a recent idea," he said. "There is a modern expectation that if there is a crime and an arrest, there has to be an appearance in court and a conviction. We are not talking about something new, what we want to do is test it out in modern ways."

He and Mr Neyroud argue in their paper, Offender-Desistance Policing and the Sword of Damocles, that offenders arrested for low-level crime could be "nudged into compliance" using the threat of heavy penalties and prosecution for failure to comply.

Based on a programme used in the US state of Hawaii, a "crime-harm forecasting statistical model" would be used to determine those who should be traditionally charged and face long prison sentences, even if they are arrested for crimes as innocuous as shoplifting, as well as those suitable for the short programme, with more supervision for offenders seen as less dangerous but more likely to reoffend.

Prof Sherman said that allowing people to be "given the break" and finish with a clean slate was important because a criminal record was such a hindrance to people getting back into work - one of the key aims of the proposal.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "We recognise more needs to be done to tackle low-level repeat offenders. We are also working on clearer guidance for the use of out-of-court disposals, such as cautions and fines, which will promote the professional discretion of police officers whilst ensuring they are used appropriately and proportionately."

Source: UKPA