All credit to Marcel Berlins for spotting the problems with police cautions

Marcel Berlins is a lawyer and journalist for the Guardian. He is also a university law lecturer, so for those of you who are interested in the arguments about the use of spot fines or police cautions be sure to take account of Marcel Berlins' article.

Marcel Berlins has identified what he calls dangers and shortcomings in the use of spot fines and police cautions.  It seems as though it is not as simple as saving the police's time on court appearances and preparatory paperwork, and freeing up the criminal courts so that there is less delay and more time to deal with more serious matters. 

Here are some of the arguments:

  • the process undermines the criminal justice system in that offenders for assaults, burglaries and other serious matters are not properly brought to account for their actions and do not feel the full force of the law;
  • as a result of cautions, offenders who should properly be considered for custody, escape this punishment because they are not subjected to the criminal process-only the courts can impose prison sentences;
  • the use of spot fines trivialises crime in that they were only ever intended for minor matters;
  • there is support for these observations in the form of investigative work by the BBC's Panorama - Do cautions 'deny victims justice'? In the programme it is  asserted that some 40,000 police cautions a year had been handed out to people guilty of assault.  Such offenders, it is alleged, not only escaped a court hearing but, in many cases, a possible prison sentence;
  • the increased use of spot fines and cautions seems to fly in the face of the public's concern over such matters as violent crimes and the apparent risks to the safety of the public;
  • how can we be satisfied that the Crown Prosecution Service is included in any decisions as to whether to charge are not?

Jack Straw , the Justice Minister, has, together with Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, recently announced that the practice of spot fines and police cautions is to be made the subject of an inquiry.

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