CRIMINALS will be given the chance to dodge court as part of a "world first" initiative by Durham Constabulary.

The Checkpoint scheme will offer those charged with offences usually dealt with by magistrates - including shoplifting, theft, low-level assault and fraud - to avoid a criminal conviction by making amends to the community and their victims.

The restorative justice approach is at the heart of Checkpoint - due to be launched across County Durham and Darlington in April 2015.

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Advocates say the pioneering scheme will cut reoffending rates, save taxpayers £135m over ten years and free-up meagre police resources.

Durham's Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg predicts it will face "pockets of resistance" from the public and some police officers but insists it is not "soft justice".

“This is about preventing crime – it’s the right thing to do as it benefits the individual and the wider community," he said.

"At the heart of this is the individual and a lot of individuals commit crime because of the situation they find themselves in.

“If we can take them away from crime, make their lives better and have them contribute to society, that’s reason enough to do it.”

However, Darlington MP Jenny Chapman, who is also shadow minister for prisons and probation, warned: “Initiatives such as this must be introduced with extreme caution. Low level crimes still have victims and victims must not be left feeling that justice has not been done.

"The police need to be careful that use of Checkpoint doesn't grow to include inappropriate crimes, that they can't be accused of using the scheme to enhance statistics and that victims are properly consulted."

The initiative, developed in conjunction with the University of Cambridge, will see those committing 'low-level' crimes given the chance to swap a conviction for a four-month long Checkpoint contract.

In what Mr Hogg calls a "world-first", offenders will be graded into three 'risk' categories - red, amber and green - and a contract drawn up to reflect their individual circumstances.

In it offenders will agree:

* Not to re-offend

* To interact with victims and the community to help them understand the impact of their crimes

* Tackle the reasons behind their criminal activity and work with services to overcome such issues as substance misuse, domestic abuse, homelessness and relationship problems

* Engage in work to give something back, develop skills and boost self-esteem

Each offender will be supervised by a skilled 'navigator' during the four-month period and they face prosecution if the contract is broken.

A similar, smaller scale project in the West Midlands saw around 75 per cent of offenders comply, the majority of which did not re-offend.

Finer details of the multi-agency programme – including its cost and confirmed partners – remain under negotiation but supporters believe Checkpoint will alleviate pressure on the criminal justice system.

Mr Hogg added: “It’s also important to adopt this kind of strategy as we face financial cutbacks and have to look at different ways of operating – this will help us to cope.

“There’s scope for savings with regard to police, court, probation and prison time – any cost will be outweighed by the savings.

"Serious offenders who commit serious crimes will not be offered this and will still go to prison.

“There’ll always be incidents where something will go wrong and we’ll take that risk as the scale of success we anticipate will outweigh any issues.

“Checkpoint is a massive step forward for policing and for this force in general.”

DS Andy Crowe, one of the officers leading the scheme, sees Checkpoint as a natural progression of the force’s offender management unit which has had marked success in cutting prolific criminals' reoffending rates.

He said: “We’ve found that a small minority of offenders commit a high proportion of crimes and short term prison sentences don’t work.

“These people often live chaotic lifestyles caused by things such as substance misuse and mental health or relationship issues.

“Little was being done between the point of the offenders starting out and them reaching the level at which the offender management unit comes in – Checkpoint intends to fill that gap and will act like a sword of Damocles hanging over someone."

Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Centre for Crime Prevention and Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Darlington said: “The notion that prolific criminals will stop offending if only we would give them a chance to do some manual labour has been done to death - it's a nice idea that just doesn't work.

"Ron Hogg should concern himself less with the cost of putting prolific offenders in prisons and more with the very real dangers of keeping them on the streets in places like Darlington. Prison protects the public and has a lower reoffending rate than soft justice alternatives."