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July 8, 2020

Should every crime be prosecuted?

This week the government said that they would like the police (or rather the CPS) to prosecute “minor” shoplifting. Shopkeepers have complained to the government that nothing happens to those who steal items worth less than £200. They say the police think its not worth pursuing such crimes.

Kit Malthouse, Minister for Policing recently wrote to Chief Constables asking them to change their practice: “The government expects all crime to be reported to the police and for them to be investigated accordingly. It is unacceptable that people who have been the victim of crime either do not have the confidence of their local police force, or else are persuaded from reporting crimes committed against them by their employers.” Such debates on how to deal with crime are often binary – with prosecution and letting people off being the two options.

But there is another very effective option which is already widely used for shoplifting offences – out of court disposals. Its not clear from the coverage what the retail industry think of them. The disadvantage of prosecuting habitual shoplifters is that it seldom makes a difference to re-offending. Shoplifters are often vulnerable individuals with alcohol or drug addictions, or people who are very poor. They are easily caught. If prosecuted, they are most likely to get sentenced to pay a fine. They will struggle to pay the fine and the cycle continues. Few police, lawyers or judges think the court process is effective.

We observed an example of a shoplifting prosecution last year. A man in his 20s was in court for stealing £50 from a bookmakers and £30 worth of sirloin steaks from Tesco, which he planned to sell on to have enough money to tide him over while his parents were away. He had 30 previous convictions, used to have drug habit which he stole to support, but had moved away from that problem peer group. The defendant already owed £1000 in court fines but the court gave him a four week suspended prison sentence and ordered him to pay compensation to the bookmaker. Which the bookmaker was unlikely to receive for a long time.

Shopkeepers need to know that the harm done to them and their business is understood and something done to make amends. Out of court disposals offer a far more effective solution than prosecution. The relatively new conditional caution is used by police for lower level crime, where the accused admits guilt. The person who accepts the caution and the victim get a swifter resolution of their case. The person who committed the crime must fulfil their side of the bargain, which may involve paying compensation, apologising and/or undergoing a rehabilitative programme. If the person has an addiction, this may be a golden opportunity for referral to or re-engagement with services.

What’s not to like? Certainly victims seem to be as, or more, satisfied with out of court disposals like cautions, than with court prosecution. Many shopkeepers don’t necessarily want an enforcement response, just to know that the person who shoplifts is getting help to turn their life around, rather than nothing happening at all. We have just published a short briefing explaining different ways of diverting people from prosecution. And why such approaches are pragmatic, effective and cost-effective.

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