DUNGANNON offenders are the least likely in Northern Ireland to be let off with an informal warning rather than dragged through the criminal justice system, new poice figures suggest.
Substantial new powers rolled out in 2010 allow police officers in Northern Ireland to use their discretion and decide on the spot who can avoid a criminal record for minor offences. The policy, known as ‘Speedy Justice’ was supposed to divert people, particularly young people, away from the criminal justice system.
However, major disparities in how the powers are applied have already shown up.
Troublemakers are four times more likely to get a ticking off instead of a criminal recod in East Belfast than in the local policing district F which includes the Dungannon and Coalisland areas.
Figures released by the PSNI show that only 10 so-called ‘discretionary disposals’ per 1000 people were issued in the local police district, the lowest rate in Northern Ireland, while the rate is highest in East Belfast where 41 disposals were administered per 1000 of the population.
Sinn Féin MLA Bronwyn McGahan has said that justice must be administered on a consistent and equal basis.
Ms. McGahan said: “While we welcomed the initiative to give informal warnings rather than bring people to court for minor offences it is important that there is a consistency to the scheme.
“I am deeply disappointed that areas like East Belfast have a far higher rate of informal warnings than areas like Dungannon.
“The scheme was designed to protect people from a getting an unwanted criminal record for a very minor event but it is also crucial that the law is applied evenly and consistently.
“It may be the case that guidelines need to be drawn up as discretion can be a personal thing and lead to inconsistencies in applying the law
“I intend to raise the matter with the local PSNI Commander to see why people in Dungannon are more likely to be brought to court than other people committing the same crime from other parts of the North.”
Until discretion was introduced here, formal cautions and prosecution were among the only official avenues which could be pursued.
Both involve the Public Prosecution Service but the new discretion powers allow a police officer on the ground to choose to deal with a minor offence on the spot him or herself and to impose sanctions without reference to the Public Prosecution Service.
A Discretionary Disposal is supposed to be used for “minor offences” and can only be issued when the suspect admits the offence and is not a persistent offender.
The officer will offer the suspect the chance to have the matter dealt with by discretion or alternatively the case will be sent to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) who will decide whether or not the case goes to court.
If dealt with by discretion it is down to the investigating officer to decide what they feel is an “appropriate outcome.”
Discretion does not result in a criminal record, however, police can still obtain details on the offender for anything for up to 12 months, which may be subject to disclosure as part of an “enhanced” criminal record check.
In a report from July 2011, the Criminal Justice Inspectorate said the delivery of Speedy Justice needed to be monitored to ensure that decisions and subsequent warnings were not delivered with undue haste.
The report highlighted concerns that its use may not be appropriate in the context of the history of Northern Ireland, in particular the potential for compromising accountability and transparency in policing.
Policy Co-ordinator for Include Youth, Paula Rodgers says the data highlights a worrying trend.
She said: “Looking at the figures the first question that comes to mind is why are there different levels of discretion in certain areas, particularly across Belfast? The police may say this is a result of the fact that people have to admit guilt to have the disposal offered to them and if that’s not happening in particular areas you can’t force people to go down this route.
“However, I don’t think that’s a good enough answer, I think we need to ask why this is the case. Why are people in certain areas not seeing this as a viable option? I believe in order to answer that we need to look at police relationships within certain areas. The danger is that if it’s happening in differently in different areas potentially we could be saying this is postcode justice.”