Rise in criminals ‘let off’ without trial

Margaret Mitchell said it was an insult to victims of crime. Picture: Gary Hutchison
Margaret Mitchell said it was an insult to victims of crime. Picture: Gary Hutchison
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The number of crimes in Scotland which are dealt with outside court has risen by 14 per cent to a record high of 141,518 over the past five years, new figures have disclosed.

Sex offences, drug offences and ass-aults are among the increasing number of crimes being dealt with without those responsible having to appear in front of a sheriff.

Yesterday, politicians expressed concern about the rising number of people who are dealt with by non-court disposals known as “direct measures” and the severity of offences committed by them.

Scottish Government figures highlighted by the Scottish Conservatives looked at the number of Crown Office disposals – a form of punishment introduced in 2007 to divert low-level crimes away from court.

The recently published figures revealed that 72,840 Crown Office disposals were processed in 2012-13, up from the 62,829 recorded in 2008-9. The Tories also looked at the number of disposals handed down directly by the police – such as anti- social fixed-penalty notices – and found that they had risen over the same period from 61,609 to 68,678.

When procurator-fiscal and police non-court disposals were added together, it was calculated that the total number rose from 124,438 to 141,518 – an increase of 14 per cent.

Further analysis of the statistics found that the majority of the 72,840 Crown Office disposals were dealt with by a fiscal fine (47,819). A fiscal fine limits the financial penalty that can be imposed to £300.

The number of fiscal fines had risen by 13 per cent in the last year alone. When fiscal fines were broken down, it was found that 29 were issued for sexual crimes, 11,659 were for drugs offences, 3,829 were for shoplifting and 1,361 were for common assault.

Procurators-fiscal have long had the power to hand out fines as an alternative to court prosecution for offences such as speeding and other road traffic offences.

However, the Criminal Proceedings Act 2007 saw an increased range of options being made to fiscals and the police in an attempt to make courts more efficient and take less serious cases out of the justice system quicker. The changes saw prosecutors receive an enhanced range of “direct measures” such as fiscal fines and the power to award compensation of up to £5,000 to victims.

Among the new powers given to the police were anti-social behaviour fixed-penalty notices and formal warnings for crimes such as breach of the peace, urinating or consuming alcohol in a public place and minor driving offences.

Of the 68,678 non-court police disposals, there were about 2,500 for shoplifting offences, eight for fire-raising and two for handling an offensive weapon.

Vandalism accounted for 913 of the police disposals, 12,577 were for breach of the peace and 1,102 were for common assault. In addition, 12 were for sexual crimes, eight were for fire-raising, four were for drugs and four were more serious crimes of violence.

Yesterday, the Conservatives claimed that tens of thousands of criminals were being given no more than a “slap on the wrist” and pointed out that the imposition of a direct measure meant that the offender’s guilt was not proven in court and therefore the perpetrator would escape having a formal criminal record.

The Scottish Government responded by saying that the measures were backed by all parties when they were first introduced in 2006 and provide “swifter justice for victims of crime”, adding that a direct measure is recorded for two years, and can be referred to, if the perpetrator re-offends.

Last night, Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Margaret Mitchell said: “These figures put the legitimacy of the SNP’s claim that crime is at a historic low into context. No wonder crime figures appear to be down when tens of thousands of people are being handed a slap on the wrist and no criminal record.

“The public will not only be appalled but will feel badly let down to learn that the Crown Office and Police are letting people off with a fine for offences, such as assault, drug and sexual offences which should be dealt with in court.

“It is also an insult to victims who assume that if they are subject to violence the perpetrator will be properly dealt with.” A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The greater range of direct measures for use by fiscals in less serious cases came into force through legislation introduced in 2006, supported by all political parties.

“All those who receive a direct measure have details added to their criminal records and this information can be used in the future if they commit further offences, for example by courts when sentencing for any future offences committed by the person.”

The Tory claims came a day after a cross-party group of MSPs expressed concern that doubts over the reliability of witnesses meant only a “small minority” of child sex abuse cases were being brought to court.