Backlash over 'tag and release' policy for petty crimes predicted
The use of the pre-charge warning, colloquially known as "tag and release", is expected to trigger a backlash in years ahead, the Police Association says.
A new Independent Police Conduct Authority review on the use of pre-charge warnings has found inconsistencies in how the warnings are applied.
The warnings were meant to help unclog the courts, following arguments that prosecuting every minor offence or dragging people through the criminal justice system for petty crimes was not always in the public interest.
But Police Association president Greg O'Connor said some sergeants and senior sergeants felt under pressure to issue pre-charge warnings so much, it was now often "the exception" to charge, instead of give a warning.
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"There's a perverse pressure on police now to pre-charge. It does need to be re-evaluated."
The system was at risk of being abused, or losing any deterrent effect, he said on Wednesday.
Police can use discretion when issuing warnings but must take into account several factors including the public interest and a person's criminal history. Only crimes with a maximum penalty of less than six months' imprisonment can result in warnings.
Although the IPCA said pre-charge warnings were supposed to have a deterrent effect, O'Connor said a new generation of people increasingly took warnings for granted.
A serious re-assessment of whether warnings deterred crime would probably be needed within two or three years, he said.
Some police voiced concerns warnings were over-used, and O'Connor said a "reversal" in attitudes was likely in a few years.
However, he said the warnings were still a useful tool for defusing many situations. The formal warnings were commonly used when police encountered drunk people committing minor offences.
Police Minister Judith Collins said the pre-charge warning system had been in place for six years and was already undergoing a review.
"I've been advised that this is on the basis of providing further guidance and clarification for staff."
Collins said the decision to issue pre-charge warnings was made at the discretion of constabulary staff.
Police officers had told the IPCA that custody supervisors had considerable discretion "on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not to give a warning."
Collins said the Policing Excellence program set a target of reducing prosecutions for non-traffic apprehensions by 19% with the introduction of alternative resolutions. This followed calls from police, the Law Commission and judiciary to develop better ways to hold offenders to account for minor offending without having to use the courts.
Meanwhile, victims were often left out when pre-charge warnings were issued, Sensible Sentencing Trust president Garth McVicar said.
"Whether that's an accidental consequence or whether it's just not enabled in the current legislation, I don't know."
The current system had no real allowance for victims who wanted compensation, he said.
The SST previously argued the warning policy would allow some offenders to "sidestep consequences".
But pre-charge warnings were still useful in some cases, McVicar said.
"Growing up as teenagers we all do stupid things. It gives [people] another tool, providing it's not abused."
The IPCA said better guidance for police officers was needed to prevent perceptions of any groups being unfairly treated under the system.
In one Waikato study, Maori were found to be far less likely to get warnings than non-Maori.
The IPCA said any racial dimensions to the way warnings were issued must be understood in a wider context. Though non-Maori were more likely to be given warnings, this was because a higher proportion of Maori committing eligible offences had previous convictions, the IPCA said.
Cops in mostly urban Waitemata district - North and West Auckland - were least likely to issue warnings.
Police in the Southern district (Otago and Southland) were most likely to do so.