A crime is committed. This may not be discovered, and when it is, may or may not be reported and investigated. So even at this early stage, many potential offenders do not enter the system.
Initial decisions on how to deal with the issue are usually made by the police, who have discretion to deal with incidents in a number of ways, one of which could simply be to take no further action. If an offence is minor, the police could, for example, issue a fixed penalty fine, disperse a group, give a verbal warning, or administer a caution.
If the police decide to arrest and/or charge an individual, they can be detained and evidence collected. The police then decide if the case should proceed to the next stage, be dealt with in other ways (such as a caution), or be dropped altogether.
If the police decide to proceed, all evidence is sent to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). This independent body decides on whether to prosecute based on a two-point test: is there sufficient evidence, and would a prosecution be in the public interest? The CPS (not the police) also decides on the wording and level of the charge, and the decision to proceed is predominantly based on the likelihood of a successful prosecution. The CPS may decide not to proceed therefore, the case is dropped.
If the CPS decide to proceed, then, depending on the nature of the offence, the case is heard either in a Magistrates’ Court (for lesser or triable-either-way offences) or in the Crown Court or higher court (for more serious or indictable offences). The Crown Court or above are adversarial, contested trials, with a prosecution (the Crown), a legal defence and a jury. Young people aged 10-17 are generally tried in a Youth Court, with specialist, suitably-trained staff.
If the trial ends with a guilty plea or decision, a range of punishments can be awarded, ranging from conditional discharges, fines, Community Orders (often referred to as ‘community service’), to immediate imprisonment, and even a total of life imprisonment. A custodial sentence may be passed, but can be ‘suspended’.
As you can see, punishment is the very last stage of the criminal process. Depending on the decisions taken along the way by a range of individuals and institutions, a sanction can be pontentially avoided at every stage. The number of people actually prosecuted is a small percentage of those whose commit a crime. Of those who then admit guilt or are found guilty by trial, less than 10% are given immediate custody.
According to date released in July 2018 by the Office for National Statistics, only around 9% of crimes committed resulted in arrest and charge. Therefore, the number of those who commit crime is vastly higher than the number who eventually receive a prison sentence.
Therefore, it is important not to look at imprisonment in isolation, but to understand it as the possible final stage of a lengthy judicial process. This system has safeguards for the individual at every step and is based on evidence ('due process').
Select Back to course in the
top left corner of the screen
to return to FutureLearn