Drunks, shoplifters, cannabis smokers and other minor offenders may be given a warning by police rather than prosecuted to help cut the number of minor cases clogging courtrooms.
The decision to issue a formal warning will be at the discretion of senior police officers for anyone arrested for a crime with a penalty of no more than two years in prison, except in the case of family violence.
The official caution will be recorded, but is not a criminal conviction.
The policy is being tested in the Auckland region, including the North Shore, Waitakere and Manukau, for six months after a successful three-month pilot in the North Shore District Court.
Superintendent Bill Searle, the Waitemata district commander, said 10 per cent of all people arrested between July and September were formally warned rather than charged.
This also led to a 64 per cent reduction in cases that were granted diversion over the same period.
More than 20 per cent of the warnings were for disorderly behaviour, followed by shoplifting and possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use, said Mr Searle.
“It’s a common-sense approach. We were looking at better ways to deal with minor offences which would not get a significant sentence anyway.”
The criterion for the three-month pilot was offences must have maximum penalties of six months’ imprisonment or less. That threshold has been lifted to a two-year maximum sentence for the Auckland-wide trial.
Mr Searle said it meant that fewer cases would go to court.
Police had always been able to use discretion, he said, but the trial was the first time formal guidelines had been used. There was a good chance the scheme would be extended to the rest of the country.
“We’re still holding these people to account. Offenders will still be arrested and taken to the station. And the official warning is recorded on the police system.”
To be eligible for a formal warning, the offender must be 17 or older, as police believed there were already suitable alternatives for younger people.
Potential reparation and whether the victim wanted to press charges would be taken into account, but a sergeant or senior sergeant would have the final say. There would be no limit on the number of formal warnings.
Frontline officers told the Weekend Herald that the formal warnings would free them from working on some “pointless” court cases and allow them to focus on serious crime.
John Banks and Len Brown, rivals for the Auckland Super City mayoralty, both said formal warnings were logical but voiced some concerns over how they would be managed.
Mr Banks, a former minister of police, said the measure made sense but it was important that people knew Auckland was a society that expected good behaviour.
“It is critical that the police maintain a zero-tolerance mantra for antisocial behaviour, as serious crime is often built on low-level offending.”
Mr Brown understood the logic behind the warning system but would like to have been consulted by police.
“I like the general philosophy but I’m wary as to how that might be applied in our community and the broader region. That so-called minor offending can cause a lot of grief.”
Anthony Rogers, president of the Criminal Bar Association, said he had spoken to Mr Searle about the project and believed guidelines for formal warnings were a good idea.
He said defendants on serious charges often had to wait up to two years to stand trial because so many minor charges were clogging up courtrooms.
Minor convictions often affected someone’s ability to travel or live overseas later in life, said Mr Rogers.
“A formal warning is a very good idea for people at a lower level on the scale. The person avoids going to court and a conviction that blights the rest of his or her life.
And it frees up the courts in the process.”
Garth McVicar, of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, said he supported anything that sped up the court process for victims of more serious, violent crimes.
But he was worried that warnings, rather than charges, could remove accountability from offenders, and he pointed to the success of the “zero tolerance” policies in New York.
Offences with maximum penalties of two years in prison or less:
Possession of cannabis.
Possession of knives.
Possession of burglary tools.
By Jared Savage