Courts are quiet as thousands avoid being charged

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THE number of children brought before court for minor crimes in the region has more than halved since 2008 as part of an overhaul of the criminal justice system which allows more low-level offenders to escape prosecution by making amends to their victim.

More than 20,000 fewer people were prosecuted by magistrates for offences including anti-social behaviour, disorder or traffic offences in 2012 than in 2008, according to new figures released to the Yorkshire Post.

And the number of juvenile cases before magistrates’ courts in Yorkshire and the Humber has dropped even more sharply, from 11,589 in 2008 to 4,904 last year.

Prosecutors say this is partly due to a drop in crime, but also attribute the trend to a higher proportion of offenders being issued ‘community resolution disposals’, where they are told to apologise or make reparations to their victims rather than face court.

Other out-of-court disposals such as conditional cautions, where offenders are not formally charged if they agree to conditions such as drug treatment or fixing damage to property, are also being used widely.

The use of such disposals is said to be quicker and more efficient and avoids “automatically prosecuting” someone for a minor offence, meaning they miss out on a chance to change their potentially criminal behaviour.

But the trend has prompted concerns that some victims of anti-social behaviour or other crimes are missing out on justice because their tormentors are not being taken through the courts.

North Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner Julia Mulligan is setting up a panel of magistrates, crime victims and policing figures to “forensically check” the use of out-of-court disposals in the county to ensure they are not being issued inappropriately.

Martin Goldman, Chief Crown Prosecutor for Yorkshire and Humberside, said a drop in crime was “a perfectly reasonable explanation and I think a perfectly right explanation as to why we are getting fewer cases in the system”.

But he said dealing with “lower level offending” by getting the person responsible to go on a course to change their behaviour, or make amends to their victim, was better for reducing re-offending and cost tax-payers less.

He said: “We have moved away now from this view that the criminal justice system is there to do everything for everyone in all circumstances and to deal with punishment in a formal court setting as the only answer to dealing with offending.”

Philip Goldberg, a partner at Leeds law firm Lester Morrill, said there was less work for local courts and that the CPS was concentrating on prosecuting more serious cases or those they thought it would be successful in.

He said: “It is very concerning. You see serious offences being dealt with by cautions, which has got to be wrong. My view is that the courts are there to punish people and that the punishment should be appropriate.

“A caution doesn’t really achieve anything. It would be interesting to know how many of those who have been cautioned go onto commit further offences because the issues around the offence aren’t dealt with.”

According to the figures released by the Crown Prosecution Service, cases prosecuted to conclusion at magistrates’ courts in the region dropped from 92,550 in 2008 to 71,829 last year.

During the same period cases concluded at Crown Courts increased from 12,903 to 13,510, though juvenile cases prosecuted to conclusion dropped sharply, from 709 to 416.

In April figures released by the Labour Party showed a dramatic increase in the use of community resolutions for violent crimes, some involving weapons. In West Yorkshire, the numbers used for ‘violence against the person’ crimes increased from nine to 1,934 between 2009 and 2012.

A spokeswoman for the Magistrates Association said there had been a drop in court workloads in the last five years.

She said: “The organisation, while accepting that penalty notices and cautions have their place in the criminal justice system, has argued for some time against the inappropriate use of these disposals, for serious offences which should be dealt with inside a court room.”

It comes days after Justice Minister Damian Green unveiled radical proposals to change the role of magistrates. He is planning a wider overhaul of the criminal justice system, which includes unclogging magistrates’ courts by taking simple road traffic offences out of the traditional process, as well as tackling re-offending rates with planned new powers for magistrates.