THE police have been instructed to let off offenders with a caution if they commit any one of more than 60 types of crime, ranging from assault to some types of theft, criminal damage and under-aged sex. 

The instructions are contained in a government document sent to forces and released under the Freedom of Information Act. They are designed to reduce inconsistencies that can see offenders in one area escaping with a caution while elsewhere they would be prosecuted for the same offence.

Now, as long as there are no aggravating factors, first-time criminals can escape court for nearly a third of all types of crime. Supporters argue cautions help the legal system function smoothly by keeping minor offenders out of court. Critics claim it is evidence the government is ?soft? on antisocial behaviour and that it is an expedient to stop the prison population growing.

The document, the Gravity Factor Matrix, has been circulated by the Home Office as part of a strategy to widen use of cautions. Last week Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, announced a further expansion, saying in a policy document: ?Some antisocial behaviour and other less serious crimes, such as certain cases of criminal damage, theft or public order offences, do not need to come to court if the defendant admits guilt.?

David Green, director of Civitas, the social policy think tank, said increased use of cautions was a return to policies that had failed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

?The Home Office is in the grip of people who think prison is uncivilised,? said Green. ?Even though none of the other ways work in reducing offending, they persist with the anti-prison policy because it is somehow the nice thing to do.?

The matrix was first mentioned in a Home Office circular on cautioning last June. The full document was not posted on the Police National Legal Database until some months later. More than 180 crimes are listed, grouped into four bands, of which level 1 is the least serious and level 4 the worst. Aggravating and mitigating factors are listed with each crime ? each one increases or decreases the severity level by one.

The Home Office says: ?Officers should use the matrix to determine the seriousness of the offence and to decide whether or not a simple caution could be used.? It adds that while officers should use discretion, cautions help ?to deal quickly and simply with less serious offences?.

A handful of crimes are listed at level 1 and more than 60 at level 2, for which the sanction is ?normally simple caution for a first offence? although the criminal may also receive a conditional caution or charge.

These crimes include possessing cannabis and throwing fireworks. They also cover criminal damage up to ?500, theft up to ?200, assault and sex with 13-15-year-olds (although there can be many aggravating factors, such as a wide age gap between victim and offender).

Apparently serious crimes can lead to a caution. For example, even when an assault results in a serious injury, the offender may escape a charge if he or she can argue that it was a spontaneous reaction rather than deliberate aggression.

Both simple and conditional cautions lead to a criminal record for the offender. This makes it far less likely they will receive a caution for a second offence. Cautions can be disclosed to employers who check an applicant?s history with the Criminal Records Bureau.

Statistics show the use of cautions is growing sharply. In 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, 24% of all offenders were cautioned but the figure rose to 48% for violent offenders, a rise of five percentage points in a year. 

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