More than a third of New Zealand's offenders avoid appearing before the courts and the Police Association boss fears a generation is growing up with no fear of consequences.
Police figures show 62.1 per cent of offenders ended up before the courts in the year to July 31.
A further 37.1 per cent of offenders were dealt with through non-court action and the remaining cases weren't proceeded with.
Just one in eight of those committing public order offences and a third who committed abduction, harassment and related offences were dealt with in court. Less than half of those on theft and related charges ended up before the courts.
A police spokesperson said fewer offenders were now being dealt with through the courts for public disorder, harassment and theft due to the introduction of the pre-charge warning scheme in 2010.
A pre-charge warning was a formal warning given after arrest for a comparatively minor offence. It was one way of reducing the use of court processes for low-level offending, while ensuring crime was still addressed and victims were supported, said police.
Police Association president Greg O'Connor said the pre-charge warning system was a response to Government instruction to reduce the number of people entering into the criminal justice system.
"The consequence will be a generation growing up with no fear of consequences and they will behave accordingly."
He said going to court acted as a deterrent, even if sentences didn't.
"Now it's just a bit of a nuisance to get arrested."
He thought the Government would take another look at its targets and he predicted police would start instructing frontline police to charge more people in the not too distant future.
"I think what will happen is that, in future, police strategies will go the other way. They'll say 'no we're going to arrest people and we're going to put them before the courts, we're going to keep them in the cells'. Because they'll realise that police don't arrest people for the fun of it, they arrest them because there's a need."
Mr O'Connor said the pre-charge warning system had been initially effective, until the criminals caught onto it. He had since heard complaints from police officers who were disappointed at the levels of pre-charge warnings. At the moment it was affecting good people living in lower socio-economic areas.
"Nothing changes until these things start to affect the - shall we say - the more affluent end of town and it will," said Mr O'Connor.
Sensible Sentencing Trust founder Garth McVicar agreed there had been a concentrated effort to meet the Government stated objective to reduce recorded crime. If a case had not gone through court it would not appear in the recorded crime statistics so the Government would meets its objectives, he said.
However, communities were still riddled with crime, said Mr McVicar.
"It seems all the 'alternative' measures such as pre-charge warnings are designed to meet that target rather than make communities safer."
Mr McVicar said it was a sad situation, given the Government was elected on a promise to get tough on crime.
Police said pre-charge warnings differed from traditional, more informal warnings given in the field, where the offender was not arrested. A pre-charge warning was issued in writing at the police station after a person had been arrested for a qualifying offence.
To be given a pre-charge warning offenders needed to be 17 years of age or over and to have committed a low level or minor offences with a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment.
Those committing family violence and methamphetamine offences were ineligible for a pre-charge warning, said police.
Police considered a number of factors in dealing with offenders through non-court action including behaviour and attitudes displayed, type of offence, severity of offence, availability of alternative options, wishes of victim, evidential threshold and offender history.
The police figures cited record unique offenders. Unique offenders are individual offenders counted once in the year regardless of how many times they have been dealt with by police. Offenders are recorded under their most serious offence.