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DeBois NickNick de Bois is the Member of Parliament for Enfield North and a Secretary of the 1922 Committee. Follow Nick on Twitter.

Since
becoming a member of the Justice Select Committee I have lost count of the
number of times I have been contacted by journalists seeking a comment on
statistics which highlight the growing use of police cautions, especially in
relation to repeat offenders.

Just a brief glance at these statistics shows
that the repeated use of cautions is completely out of hand – indicating that
they don’t work as a punishment or a deterrent.

A report by the Centre for Crime Prevention
found earlier this month that more than 90,000 of the worst serial offenders
avoided jail last year; and that number has risen by a quarter in the last five
years. Worryingly the number of repeat offenders with at least 15 prior
convictions or cautions rose by a third last year to nearly 110,000 from a
starting point of just over 80,000 in 2006/07; while the number of individuals
with at least 10 previous convictions or cautions was up by a quarter from
112,000 to 140,000.

As the name suggests, cautions were introduced
so that they could be given as a final warning. However, in an internal memo
from then Labour Home Secretary John Reid (now Lord Reid), the police were
directed to give serial criminals repeated cautions rather than despatch them
to court. The note, titled “Simple Cautioning of Adult Offenders” also advised
that any offender caught committing multiple crimes in a single incident could
still be eligible for a caution, and anyone caught committing the same
“trivial” offence could again be let off with just a caution – providing two years
had passed between each offence.


This meant that a thief could quite easily
receive up to five cautions in ten years without ever having their day in
court; and instead of adding all of their crimes together to create a picture
of a serious prolific offender, each would be treated separately.

Labour may regard some of those crimes from the
memo as  “trivial” but it is certainly not a term I would ever associate
with burglary or violence – yet such crimes often resulted in multiple
cautions. Judging by the reforms to sentencing and rehabilitation proposed by
the MoJ so far I suspect the Secretary of State feels much the same way.

It is all too evident that the current cautions
system sends out all the wrong messages to career criminals. A repeated slap on
the wrist will not deter people from choosing a life of crime. It's simply an
interruption to business as usual.

So why not return to the basic principle of a
caution, namely that  its a warning and that a first caution should always
be a last caution.

By effectively  introducing
"conditional cautions" it simply means that a second offence
automatically ensures that the offender does go to court. ( This conditional
caution should not be confused with the bizarre system of conditional cautions
introduced by Labour for non-adult offenders who, if they agree to certain
conditions  such as admitting the offence they will then receive a caution
and avoid court.)

Yet if a caution were to carry a deferred
prosecution; the offender would be in no doubt that if they chose to break the
law again – they will be up in front of a court, facing charges for all of the
offences they have committed.

While it is true that the courts and the police
should always retain an element of discretion; it is all too clear that the
current system is failing both offenders and victims alike.

Many first-time offenders deserve a second
chance, but a third, fourth or even as we have seen a fifteenth is not justice,
but seen as a joke by many law abiding citizens. It's time to correct the
mistakes of the past.

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