Police could charge thieves, drug dealers and shoplifters in hours under new powers

A woman shoplifts from a clothing store
Offences proposed for the measures include domestic abuse, harassment, burglary, robbery, theft, knife crime and violent crime - GoodLifeStudio/iStockphoto

Thieves, drug dealers and shoplifters could be charged within hours under new police powers to speed up justice.

Police will be able to charge offenders for crimes that merit jail sentences of up to six months without having to go through independent crown prosecutors.

The move – a significant increase in the powers of the police – will be piloted by “high performing” forces before any expansion to all 43 constabularies in England and Wales.

The change has been recommended by a government-commissioned review that found officers spent 540,000 hours a year filling in 17-page forms for nearly every case sent to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) before it decided on whether to charge.

Each file took an officer up to three hours to complete. In total, the time spent on form-filling amounted to the equivalent of putting 260 police officers on the beat for an entire year in England and Wales.

The introduction of the form-filling rules in 2021 also meant that the time between an offence being reported and a suspect being charged has increased from 14 days in 2016 to 44 days in 2023.

This risked offenders escaping justice because of victims dropping out as a result of of the delays, say police chiefs.

The move follows calls by three of Britain’s most senior police chiefs from three of the five biggest forces asking for the CPS to be stripped of having sole power to authorise charges in most cases.

They proposed that the offences should include domestic abuse, harassment, burglary, robbery, theft, knife crime and violent crime.

The three chief constables – Stephen Watson of Greater Manchester Police, Craig Guildford of West Midlands Police and John Robins of West Yorkshire Police – said that delays in charging suspects was leading to the guilty walking free and delayed justice, as victims and witnesses tired of long waits.

The review of police productivity, by Alan Pughsley, the former chief constable of Kent Police, has recommended that the CPS and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) should run a pilot giving some additional charging decisions – where a guilty plea is expected – to high-performing police forces.

It will probably be initially restricted to offences dealt with by magistrates’ courts, which have the power to impose jail sentences of up to six months or one year if there are multiple cases. This could include theft, shoplifting, drug offences and assaults.

Mr Pughsley’s report said: “The scope for police charging decisions is narrow. NPCC is seeking to identify and pilot some additional charging decisions being transferred from the CPS to high-performing police forces (specifically relating to anticipated guilty plea offences being tried in magistrates’ courts).

“This could provide an opportunity to relieve demand from the CPS, reduce the demand on police to complete pre-charge files for a CPS decision, and improve the timeliness of charging decisions.”

A shop displays an anti-shoplifting sign on its store window
Shoplifters could be among offenders charged within hours under the proposed new powers - Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

The review also found that officers were spending a further 532,000 hours a year preparing case files of evidence for the CPS to decide whether to charge a suspect, only for them to decide not to do so.

This was because of a change in the system whereby previously officers would only have to prepare an initial file and, if the CPS decided to charge, would then put together a full case file. Now, full files have to be submitted by officers, even though a quarter end up with no further action taken.

The review estimated there were 38,000 pre-charge files where no action was taken.

The report said: “Using the estimated average of 14 hours for officers to complete a pre-charge file, it means that about 532,000 officer hours were used to build full files that go no further. This time usage should be minimised.”

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