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Cautions, penalty notices and other alternatives

Not all offences must be handled by the courts. Police have a range of alternatives they can use to address low-level crimes.

For adults, these alternatives include:

  • simple cautions
  • conditional cautions
  • cannabis warnings
  • penalty notices for disorder
  • fixed penalty notices (for driving offences)

For youths aged 10 to 17, the options include:

  • reprimands
  • final warnings
  • penalty notices for disorder, although only for those aged 16-17

Simple cautions

A 'simple caution' is used to deal quickly and simply with those who commit less serious crimes.  It aims to divert offenders away from court, and to reduce the likelihood that they will offend again.

If you are given a simple caution you will be officially warned about the unacceptability of your behaviour, and the likely consequences of committing further crimes will be explained to you.

The main aim of a simple caution is to prevent offenders reoffending. So if you offend again, you're likely to be charged instead of getting a second caution unless:

  • the second offence is a minor offence unrelated to the first
  • two years or more have elapsed since the original offence

When do police use simple cautions?

Police can only issue a simple caution if:

  • there's evidence an offender is guilty 
  • the offender is 18 years of age or over
  • the offender admits they committed the crime
  • the offender agrees to be given a caution – if the offender does not agree to receive a caution then they may be charged instead

There are no rigid rules about the particular situations in which cautions should be used – this is at the discretion of senior police officers.

The only exceptions are more serious crimes like robbery or assault, which must always be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Will a simple caution go on my criminal record?

A simple caution is not a criminal conviction, but it will be recorded on the police database. It may be used in court as evidence of bad character, or as part of an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) application. 

The record will remain on the police database along with photographs, fingerprints and any other evidence taken.  If you are cautioned for a sexual offence, you could be placed on the sex offenders register.

If a crime victim requests your name and address for civil proceedings, the police are legally obliged to give this information out, so you may still be sued for damages. 

Conditional cautions

A 'conditional caution' differs from a simple caution in that you must comply with certain conditions to receive the caution and to avoid prosecution for the offence you've committed.

Like simple cautions, conditional cautions aim to keep lower level offenders from overburdening the court system. 

They also address the needs of both victims and offenders - they deal with the offender's behaviour quickly, and allow action to be taken to rehabilitate the offender or to repair the damage caused by the offence.

Types of conditions

The conditions that can be attached to a conditional caution must have one or more of the following objectives:

  • rehabilitation – conditions that help to change the behaviour of the offender,  reduce the likelihood of them re-offending or help to reintegrate the offender into society
  • reparation – conditions that aim to repair the damage done either directly or indirectly by the offender

Rehabilitative conditions could include attendance at drug or alcohol misuse programmes, or interventions tackling other addictions or personal problems, such as gambling or debt management courses.

To repair the damage you could apologise for your actions, physically repair or otherwise make good any damage you caused, provided this is acceptable to the victim.

Specific financial compensation may also be necessary.

Where the offending has resulted in damage to community property, reparation could take the form of unpaid work to repair that damage, or of a payment to an appropriate local charitable or community fund.

Changes to conditional cautions

Conditional cautions now include 'punitive measures' - these are conditions which punish or penalise offenders for their law-breaking and could include:

  • the payment of a financial penalty
  • unpaid work for a period not exceeding 20 hours
  • attendance at a specified place for a period not exceeding 20 hours

When do police use conditional cautions?

Police can administer a conditional caution after consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service when they think it is the most appropriate way to address your behaviour or to make direct reparation to the victim of the crime. The views of the victim can also  be considered.

A conditional caution can only be offered to those who have admitted their guilt.

If you do not comply with the conditions attached to the conditional caution, you will be charged with the original offence and the case will go to court.

Will a conditional caution go on my criminal record?

Just like a simple caution, a conditional caution is not a criminal conviction. But it will be recorded on the police database and may be considered in court if you are tried for another offence.

The record will remain on the police database along with photographs, fingerprints and any other samples taken at the time.

If the victim of your offence requests your name and address for civil proceedings, the police are legally obliged to give this information out, so you may still be sued for damages. 

Do young offenders receive cautions?

No. Young offenders (aged 17 and under) are given 'reprimands' and 'final warnings' instead of simple cautions. This is to try and keep them out of the court system.  

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