Derbyshire Constabulary has been revealed as one of the forces most likely to settle criminal cases using an out-of-court settlement which allows offenders to escape prosecution even for serious crimes.
According to a new investigation, between 2014 and 2018 police forces across England and Wales resolved some 449,000 crimes with a Community Resolution (CR) – although that represents just three per cent of all outcomes recorded.
A CR does not appear on a criminal record or standard DBS check and does not count as a conviction, even where it has been used for thousands of offences as serious as child sex abuse, grooming, kidnapping, knife crime and drugs trafficking.
As a percentage of recorded crime outcomes for the years in question, Durham has issued the most CRs at eight per cent overall. Derbyshire is the next highest on six per cent — or 12,517 out of 212,395 crime outcomes.
Detective Sergeant Steve Bruce from Derbyshire Constabulary’s Public Protection Unit said: “Community resolution forms part of the restorative justice process which allows victims of crime and those responsible to meet and collectively decide on a response to an incident.
“This process empowers the victim and places them at the centre of the process, ensuring that we provide a victim-focused service.
He added: “Where appropriate, the restorative justice process can be employed to deal with a variety of crimes ranging from anti-social behaviour to assault, if it is deemed ‘the obvious right thing to do’.”
Guidance issued to police sets out a typical CR process where offenders - usually on their first offence -must admit responsibility and remorse for the crime and victims should be asked to consent to its use, although this is not essential.
CRs will sometimes involve restorative justice dialogues between offender and victim.
Offenders should agree to make amends through apologies, reparation of damages or other agreements, but agreements between victims and offenders are voluntary and not enforceable by police in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
The offence most likely to result in a CR in Derbyshire since 2014 has been criminal damage, where it has been applied in about eight per cent of cases every year, or 688 incidents at most.
For the country as a whole, the approach is most likely to be used in drugs related crimes.
But the measure has been employed to resolve more serious offences too. In 2017-18, Derbyshire police used CRs in six cases of arson endangering life – the most of any force in the country.
It has also been used in three cases of sexual grooming since 2014, seven cases of child sexual exploitation, one case of incest of familial sexual offence, and one case of kidnapping.
Nationally, CRs have been issued in 27 cases of rape, and more than 1,000 child sex offences.
DS Bruce said: “A similar approach has been used to resolve incidences of sexting between children. We will always investigate reports of inappropriate material such as nude photos being received by or requested from children.
“However, there are times during our investigations when it becomes clear that the sharing of these images is not of a malicious nature.
He added: “In such cases where restorative justice has been considered the best course of action, this route will be taken.
“This is the case with the Derbyshire child sexual exploitation figures quoted in the Home Office report. All of those listed in the report refer to incidences of sexting between children.
“Tackling CSE remains a top priority for us as a force and we will always strive to ensure that anyone who is a victim of it receives the highest quality service from us and our partners.”
Usage of CRs started to decline in 2015 after the House of Commons’ Home Affairs Committee published a report suggesting around 30 per cent of out of court disposals may have been issued inappropriately.
Simon Kempton, operational lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: “The decisions have to be led by what is best for the victims.
“Occasionally, community resolutions could be an alternative to no further action. For example, conviction might rest on the ability of a victim to attend court and if they do not attend court, police and CPS could fail to secure that conviction. In this case, a community resolution might be appropriate.”
He added: “This should not be seen as an easy get out and in use should be appropriate to the circumstances– its use needs to be monitored whilst being victim focussed.
“There will always be exceptional circumstances which merit a community resolution being issued, but the victim focus should never be lost.”
Force are expected to use scrutiny panels to regularly review their use of community resolutions.
However, the BBC investigation has prompted calls for the system to be examined more closely, amid concerns CRs could be masking other problems in policing.
Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “What is clear from the figures is that contrary to their original purpose and the very clear guidance given to the police, CROs are being used to deal with more and more serious offences. This shouldn’t be happening.
“These cases should be resolved formally in a courtroom. It is incredible that someone who admits committing an offence of rape receives what amounts to little more than a warning.”
Labour’s Shadow Policing Minister Louise Haigh said: “Community resolutions are an important tool that provide alternatives to custody and provide positive steps for rehabilitation and resolution.
“They are, however, only appropriate in certain circumstances and although police recording can sometimes conflate certain crimes it is extremely alarming to see CRs used for child sexual exploitation offences and rape. ”
A spokesperson from Parents Against Child Exploitation, a charity working with parents and carers affected by child exploitation, said: “Child sexual exploitation is an horrendous crime and is not a low level offence – so it is not appropriate to use it.
“We commend the bravery of all families we work alongside who work tirelessly to safeguard their children, and share vital information and intelligence to support the disruption and conviction of the perpetrators responsible.”