In the Media

Thugs could pay ?500 to stay out of jail

PUBLISHED June 26, 2006

Violent criminals can dodge a jail sentence by paying a ?500 fine under Government plans and their 'punishment' will not even count as a criminal conviction.

The system of 'conditional cautioning' would cover crimes including actual bodily harm, affray, carrying a knife, possessing Class A drugs - including crack and heroin - and criminal damage.

The proposal from Attorney Gerneral Lord Goldsmith brought angry reactions from Tories and victim groups.

They said it completely undermines Tony Blair's promise, only last Friday, to rebalance the 'skewed' criminal justice system in favour of the victim.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis,said: "It is outrageous that people who commit these serious and dangerous crimes will go by and large unpunished.

"Until the Government has proper penalties - and plans adequate prison capacity to enforce them - criminals will not be deterred and the public will continue to pay the price of Labour's failure. This is more like a trivial tax on crime than a major deterrent."

Lord Goldsmith said a trial of the system in Lancashire had produced 'very good' results. He pointed to the example of a youth who had been made to buy a box of chocolates for a terrified woman whose window he had kicked in. He went round with the chocolates and a handwritten note of apology.

Lord Goldsmith said taking the youth to court would have taken months, while the conditional caution allowed his victim to see swift justice. He added: "Not only did that bring home to him very early what the consequences of his behaviour were, but she was much, much happier than I believe she would have been if the thing was dragged out."

Now he wants greater use of the caution, which carries a maximum penalty of ?500 or 20 hours' community service. Other conditions, such as repairing damage caused, can be included.

The measure is part of Mr Blair's 'Respect action plan' to restore order to the streets. He is turning to conditional cautioning after losing faith in the ability of the courts to deal with 'low-level' crimes.

The policy is in stark contrast to the tough rhetoric used by Home Secretary John Reid. He has made repeated statements about the need to crack down on violent offenders and give the public a justice system people believe is "truly on their side".

The Home Office has yet to publish any research on the re-offending rate for conditional cautions. Critics say it is likely to be even worse than for other types of punishment - six out of ten re-offend within two years - as those given conditional cautions feel they still have a 'clean slate' and no criminal conviction.

Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, described the idea as 'nonsense'.

He said: "What sort of deterrent is this? The Government talks about the need for commons sense, and that is certainly what the public wants, but this is the opposite.

"Their answer, if they lose control of a problem, is to try and downgrade it. They lost control of drugs and reduced its severity, now they are doing the same with violence and other crimes."

It is the latest in a long line of Government initiatives to divert crimes away from magistrates courts, which Mr Blair is convinced take too long to deliver justice. It follows decisions to punish shoplifters with on-the-spot fines. The fixed-penalty notices are also given to drunks who create mayhem in town centres.

Mr Blair is backed in the crusade by Peter Neyroud, chief constable of Thames Valley.

In a letter to the Prime Minister last week, he wrote: "Move as much outside the courts into conditional cautioning, fixed penalty notices and restorative approaches as possible - 21st century justice."

The Home Office said there was a significant 'gap in the market' for dealing with low-level offenders who admit their offence, but are not suitable for a simple caution or on-the-spot fine.

"The ability to impose conditions that are clearly punitive in effect will enable prosecutors to offer diversion from prosecution to those whose offending impacts on the community at large, for example people who are guilty of low level acts of disorder."