Thousands let off with cautions for possessing indecent child images
Thousands of offenders have been let off with cautions for possessing indecent images of children, official figures show.
Analysis of criminal justice data by the Press Association shows that more than 2,000 individuals were spared prosecution for the crime in a decade.
The statistics also show that when perpetrators are convicted, hundreds are given non-custodial sentences.
Earlier this week, a police chief sparked a storm of controversy when he suggested those who view indecent images of children should not always face criminal charges.
Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for child protection, said lower-level offenders should be dealt with through counselling and rehabilitation.
Forces should focus on the most dangerous paedophiles with access to children and those looking at the most serious images, the officer said.
Ministry of Justice statistics published last year show that 208 defendants were cautioned for possession of indecent photographs of children in 2015 in England and Wales.
A total of 2,248 cautions were issued for the offence between 2005 and 2015.
In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of individuals proceeded against and sentenced for the charge were at their highest over the decade.
Of 517 offenders sentenced by courts for possessing indecent images of children, 128 were jailed - while 372 were given either suspended or community sentences.
The figures also show that hundreds of cautions have been issued for "taking, permitting to be taken or making, distributing or publishing indecent photographs or pseudo photographs of children". In 2015, 185 cautions were issued for this offence.
Those convicted of possessing indecent images can face up to five years in prison, while distributing or making them carries a maximum term of 10 years. The definition of a child for the offences is anyone under the age of 18.
Cautions are formal warnings that can be issued when there is sufficient evidence for a prosecution but it is not considered to be in the public interest to charge the perpetrator.
The person must admit guilt and consent to a caution for it to be administered. Cautions can have conditions attached.
Crown Prosecution Service guidance says a caution is "unlikely to be a suitable method of disposal in cases where indecent images of children are found on the suspect's computer".
The guidance says: "Cases that may be appropriate for a caution ... are cases where indecent images of children are not found on the suspect's computer, but the suspect admits to having previously accessed such sites to obtain indecent images of children."
An NSPCC spokesman said: "Every child abuse image is a crime scene and every time someone looks at these vile pictures they create more demand for paedophiles to harm children.
"We do not want anyone to be under the delusion that just looking at these horrific images is not as bad as contact offending because every click perpetuates this abuse and hurts the victim again."