Why two vandals only got cautions

Police in Norfolk have been forced into an embarrassing climb-down after an officer said the force would not be prosecuting a pair of vandals because they were “foreign” and “unemployed”.

Police in Norfolk have been forced into an embarrassing climb-down after an officer said the force would not be prosecuting a pair of vandals because they were “foreign” and “unemployed”. Crime correspondent BEN KENDALL examines why some offenders are dragged through the courts while others are seemingly let off.

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To the uninitiated it can seem an inexact science. On the one hand, there are members of the public who are fined for dropping a banana skin or eating an apple behind the wheel. On the other, a pair of vandals caught on CCTV damaging cars in Norwich escape with a caution.

It would no doubt come as little comfort to Andrew Shepherd, from Essex, and Sarah McCaffery, of Tyneside - the individuals taken to court over their fruit-based offending - to learn that it was not in the public interest to take action against the two vandals because they were “both unemployed foreign nationals with no income”.

And yet that is just the claim made by a PC in a letter to residents of Magdalen Street, Norwich, after the 19 and 29-year-old men involved were identified as those responsible for smashing up a number of cars in the area.

As one resident, Barry Ferguson, said: “This has nothing to do with the fact they are foreign nationals - no one should get away with this type of thing.”

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Norfolk police has since retracted the letter, saying it is not its policy to issue a caution based on ethnicity or level of income. Such a rapid retraction makes it clear the letter was an error of judgment by an individual officer, but would it have been so rapid if the case had not been highlighted by the media?

It creates the impression that such arbitrary justice is being administered on a daily basis, perhaps undermining policies aimed at placing more “instant” powers in the hands of beat officers.

However, there is a clear and complex set of criteria laid down by the Home Office and overseen by the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that, whenever necessary, further action is taken.

Frank Ferguson, the central area unit head of Norfolk CPS, said all decisions were based on two key tests: evidential and public interest. The evidential test - which measures the “realistic prospect of conviction” - takes precedence and, once this is met, police and prosecutors must decide whether “public interest factors against prosecution clearly outweigh those in favour”.

He added: “In broad terms, the more serious the alleged offence, the more likely it will be that a prosecution will be needed in the public interest. A prosecution is less likely to be needed if a court would be likely to fix a minimum penalty. Other factors, such as a low risk of reoffending, also come into play.

“For example, if a person damages their neighbour's fence following a dispute and it is their first offence, a decision may be taken not to prosecute if they have admitted what they've done and offered to make amends.

“Similarly, we had a case last week involving a woman in her forties who had never been in trouble but was caught stealing a low-value item from a shop after a nervous breakdown.”

While Mr Ferguson would not comment on the case of the Magdalen Street vandals, he stressed factors such as nationality, income or social class could never play a part in such decisions.

Norfolk police would have been obliged to consider the evidential and public interest tests - and nothing else - when taking the decision on whether or not to proceed.

Assuming the two men were both first-time offenders, the cautions issued - which constitute an admission of guilt that will remain on their records should they commit any further offences - were in line with Home Office guidelines.

If they had been charged, it would have been with a relatively low level criminal damage offence, dealt with by magistrates who would have most likely handed out a fine or compensation order which must itself be based on the offenders' ability to pay - in this case, virtually zero.

Alternative penalties such as community sentences could have been considered but, with the option of a financial penalty removed, a conditional discharge would perhaps have been the most likely outcome.

Such an outcome would effectively amount to the same as a caution, but would have cost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of public money and used up hours of court time.

A Norfolk police spokesman reinforced the message that ethnicity and income played no part in the decision. The officer responsible will be given advice on “diversity issues”.

It now seems that the cautions given were in line with Home Office guidelines and, although the basis of those guidelines themselves is debatable, the police can only abide by them.

The officer responsible clearly made a mistake in the way he chose to explain the outcome but, in an age in which most statements from the police are habitually sanitised by public relations professionals, such a slip up can surely be forgiven.