SEX offenders, child abusers, traffickers and stalkers are among thousands of North-East criminals to escape prosecution after confessing to serious crimes.

Concerns have been raised over police use of out of court disposals after an investigation found they had been used against guidance for major offences.

Rape, child abduction, arson with intent to endanger life and grooming were among the grave crimes resolved via ‘community resolution’ by the region’s forces between 2014 and 2018.

The disposals – used more than 35,000 times in the North-East – are designed to tackle minor offences and will not appear on criminal records or basic DBS checks. They are not classed as convictions.

A nationwide investigation conducted by The Northern Echo in conjunction with the BBC’s Shared Data Unit analysed more than 430,000 community resolutions and found that they had been used against guidance for thousands of serious crimes which could otherwise attract a jail sentence.

Figures for the North-East show that they were used for 4% of all crimes, including more than 9,000 assaults, at least 400 burglaries, 92 drugs trafficking cases and 150 sex offences, 79 of which involved children.

The rape of a girl under 13 was resolved with a community resolution by Durham Constabulary, which also handed out the disposals for two counts of sexual grooming, 19 stalking offences and 21 cases of aggravated vehicle taking.

In North Yorkshire, almost one in five drug crimes were resolved via community resolution.

According to Home Office figures, Durham is the force most likely in the UK to use the disposals, while Cleveland Police has among the lowest rate issued as a percentage of overall crime outcomes.

To receive a community resolution, the offender should admit to the crime and offer to make amends, while victims should agree with the course of action – though officers can use the disposal without their consent if they have supervisory permission.

The Northern Echo:

Mostly issued for minor offences including shoplifting and criminal damage, they can be – but are not always – used alongside restorative justice approaches and aim to steer offenders away from crime while giving victims a voice. Police cannot usually enforce agreements made during the process.

To justify their use for serious offences, some forces highlighted examples that saw them issued for sexual activity between children or cases where the victim had no desire to see the offender prosecuted.

Durham’s Checkpoint scheme – which offers some offenders the chance to avoid prosecution and receive an out of court disposal if they comply with the programme for four months – has contributed to the force’s high level of use.

Before April, completion of the scheme would have been recorded by the force as a community resolution but new legislation means it will be reflected in crime outcomes data as a deferred prosecution.

Jo Farrell, chief of Durham Constabulary, said: “Before using a community resolution, the previous offending behaviour of the offender, the severity of the offence, along with the wishes of the victim, must be considered.

“We recognise that as a force we are a high user of community resolution and because of this we use quality assurance methods to ensure that at all times, we have done the right thing for the victim.”

Green Party co-leader Sian Berry has called on forces to monitor the process while Shadow Policing Minister Louise Haigh joined the Criminal Bar Association, Victim Support and the Magistrates’ Association in raising concern over the use of the disposal for serious offences.

Ms Haigh believes they can provide “positive steps for rehabilitation and resolution” but expressed alarm over their use for offences like rape, saying: “I can’t imagine a set of circumstances in which that would be remotely appropriate and I hope this mechanism isn’t being used to boost clear-up rates in the middle of a criminal justice system in crisis.”

Magistrates’ Association chair John Bache JP and Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said serious offences should be resolved in court.

Mr Henley added: “It is unsurprising that offenders arrested for serious crime leap at the offer of a community resolution.

“Sadly this is about a lack of resources - the police and CPS are struggling to cope with the consequences of years of savage cuts.”

Overall use of community resolutions declined after a 2015 Government report said out of court disposals had been inappropriately issued in up to 30% of cases - but for eight forces, including Durham, use has grown.

National Police Chiefs’ Council deputy chief constable, Sara Glen, said that the use of the disposals for indictable offences was expected to decrease as forces implement a new national strategy that states such cases can only be authorised by officers of a rank not lower than inspector, with 'thematic reviews' expected to ensure compliance.

She said: "Community resolutions help police handle low-level offending proportionately. They can involve making amends, apologising or completing education.

"Victims' wishes are central to our decision-making and officers have established tools and guidance to help them to reach the right outcome. Our decisions are examined by force scrutiny panels.

"Our national strategy makes clear community resolutions should not be used in the most serious cases.

"Officers are making decisions about whether it is fair and proportionate to give someone a criminal record for their first minor offence - when they've admitted responsibility, offered to remedy the crime, are considered unlikely to reoffend, and can be given a sanction that deters further offending."