Police cautions overused to hit targets, says Dyfed-Powys PCC
A police and crime commissioner has pledged to end his officers' culture of issuing cautions for serious offences.
Dyfed-Powys Police were more likely to give cautions than any other force in Wales or England, with 45% of serious offenders being warned not prosecuted.
Christopher Salmon blamed "target culture" and has ordered a review.
Wales' four police forces last year issued cautions for offences including assault, sexual offences, burglary and drugs trafficking and supply offences.
The average rate of serious crimes dealt with by caution across Wales and England was 26% with more than 200,000 people cautioned last year.
South Wales Police had the lowest rate of cautions issued with just 19% of offenders issued with one.
Cautions are recorded in crime figures as detections and though not regarded as convictions they do result in a criminal record for the offender.
Magistrate Dai Davies, chairman of the Carmarthenshire justices' bench, expressed concern that open, transparent justice was being undermined by the use of cautioning.
He said: "Cautions were originally meant to target low-level crime - certainly not serious crime - or perhaps a first-time offender where it's not in the public interest to prosecute in court.
"Over the last 10 years we've seen cautions being used for first-time offenders having dropped by 25% but for offenders who have committed 10 offences or more, we've seen an increase in excess of 170%.
"So there is a trend away from the simple, low-level crime to more complex crime."
Figures obtained by BBC Wales through a Freedom of Information request indicate that during 2012, Dyfed-Powys officers issued 1,206 cautions for violence including assault with intent to cause serious harm, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, assault with injury and child cruelty.
They also issued 24 cautions for sexual offences and 87 for drug trafficking.
Mr Salmon said he was concerned about the use of cautions by the Dyfed-Powys force and had discussed the issue with the chief constable.
"We both need to be reassured that they're being used appropriately and at the moment that's not so much the case, so we need to look into that," he said.
"Cautions are an important tool in the box of police officers in dealing with crime, but what's vital is that we do the right thing by the victims of crime and the right things by the perpetrator."
He said he suspected officers had felt under pressure "on getting detections" to try and reach set targets.
"The result of that is you get a lot of false incentives in the system to deal with things by cautions when frankly they should have been dealt with through the court system," he said.
Dyfed-Powys assistant chief constable Carl Langley said more serious offences were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and the use of cautions was monitored by the police force.
But Welsh Women's Aid director Paula Hardy said the overuse of cautions worsened the fears of domestic violence victims that they would not be taken seriously when reporting attacks.
She said: "What we're hearing from women who feel very let down by police is that they're less likely to go back."
Surrey chief constable Lynne Owens, speaking on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said cautions for the most serious offences should only be used in "exceptional circumstances" with advice from prosecutors.
She said: "The vast majority of those who receive a caution for a first time offence do not go on to commit further crimes.
"It is important to recognise that a caution is a legitimate criminal justice outcome, with real sanctions attached, such as being placed on the sex offenders register and the resulting risk management that follows."
The Ministry of Justice has a wider review of cautions due to report by the end of May.