Is a Cautioning Scheme for Summary Offences in NSW Needed?


The criminal justice system is under a great deal of pressure.

Alleviating some of the strain would allow police and other law enforcement agencies to focus on serious crime, without clogging up the system with minor offences.

Over the years, a number of different ideas have been suggested to help reduce the burden on the justice system.

A recent study conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) suggests a system of cautioning for minor offences instead of penalisation.

This would mean that certain types of people could be cautioned instead of charged for minor and summary offences in NSW.

The study, which looked at adult onset offenders and their rate and likelihood of reoffending, suggested that a cautioning scheme for certain adult onset offenders could save costs and free up resources, as well as potentially reduce recidivism in this particular group of persons.

What are adult onset offenders?

The majority of research around crime and criminals has looked at those with a history of committing offences that started in childhood, usually known as ‘early onset offenders’.

There are many factors that can make a person more likely to commit a crime than others, and family background, upbringing and socio-economic disadvantage are among the best researched.

Adult onset offenders are those with no previous history of criminal activity or previous contact with the criminal justice system, who commit their first offence after the age of 18.

Although they are in the minority, adult onset offenders do still make up a significant portion of the criminal population.

Results from the study show that adult onset offenders make up around 25% of prison inmates.

It’s believed that many adult onset offenders are affected by psychosocial factors including a culture of alcohol consumption, recreational drug-taking and partying, and the risk-taking behaviour that often accompanies early adulthood.

Due to this, interventions could be a more constructive form of dealing with adult onset offenders than harsh penalisation.

How do adult onset offenders differ from other ‘criminals’?

Research reveals that the majority of adult onset offenders are low-risk, low-rate offenders who commit minor offences.

Over 70% of adult onset offenders in the study only committed one or two offences, and only 8.8% committed five or more.

As sentencing and criminal justice outcomes are intended to be based largely on level of risk to the community, the more punitive forms of justice may not be appropriate, or fair, for offenders with a low chance of recidivism.

Adult onset offenders often fall into the young adult category, being between the ages of 18 and 25, and are likely to be influenced by others and their environment to a greater degree than older adults.

Being put into prison with more hardened criminals could have the opposite effect than intended on adult onset offenders, who may be more likely to reoffend as a result of people they meet and skills they learn in prison.

As well as this, the consequences of a criminal conviction or a period of incarceration on work and travel opportunities could make it more difficult for adult onset offenders to rebuild their lives and could potentially lead to ongoing problems and an increased likelihood of reoffending.

How much money could a cautioning scheme save?

The study showed that although they commit fewer offences and the offences committed are generally less severe, processing adult offenders through the courts costs more for adult onset offenders than for early onset offenders.

The lower cost of processing early onset offenders was believed to be partly due to the availability of cautioning schemes for youth offenders, which reduced the overall costs.

In the study it was estimated that implementing a cautioning scheme for first-time adult onset offenders in the less severe category could potentially save the criminal justice system around $32.5 million in police and court costs.

Cautioning schemes already exist for young people in NSW and also for certain drugs offences.

Extending a formal cautioning scheme for low-risk adult offenders could be well worth looking at as a way to reduce the strain on the criminal justice system in NSW, and ensure that those who pose a low risk of reoffending are not unfairly penalised, or put risk at higher risk of recidivism.

What’s the downside?

The other side of the argument, of course, is that a cautioning scheme would give police officers even more discretion to decide who should be given a warning and who should be formally charged and taken to court, which could increase the targeting of certain groups and types of alleged offenders.

It might also lead to people ‘getting away with crimes’ and continuing to offend, rather than being deterred through the intervention of the formal criminal justice system from the start.


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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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