Charity's fear as police forces reveal number of sex offenders handed cautions
A kids' charity has expressed concern that police are going soft on people who horde child abuse images after a force revealed it let off 94 offenders with a slap on the wrist.
Northumbria Police, who gave out the cautions instead of prosecuting the offenders, said "appropriate action is taken on a case-by-case basis".
But a charity which supports victims of abuse said the "high usage" of cautions was "concerning".
Gabrielle Shaw from the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) which helps people recovering from childhood abuse, said: "Behind every indecent image of a child is a picture of a crime scene.
"It is hugely damaging because a child is being abused - their innocence is being robbed and the effects often last a lifetime.
"The high usage of cautions shown by these figures is concerning.
"Generally a caution for downloading indecent images of children isn’t enough, particularly if you look at the public interest element.
"Two points stand out – first, the circumstances of the victim - the greater the vulnerability, the more pressing it should be to fully prosecute.
"Secondly, the impact on the community - sexual abuse of children has been the hidden crime for far too long; the impacts of this on society are huge and are only now beginning to be fully understood."
The figures were obtained by BBC Newcastle, who found police have issued more than 160 cautions to people who downloaded child sex images over the past five years.
They asked five forces in the North East, Cumbria and North Yorkshire how many cautions they had given out since 2011.
In comparison to Northumbria's 94 cautions, Durham Police issued 40 cautions, North Yorkshire 13, Cleveland 11 and Cumbria 10.
Donald Findlater from the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, which works with people worried about their sexual interest in children, said there were situations in which a caution would be "the right response".
He said: "For example, if the person that's accessed sexual images of anyone perhaps 14 or 15 years of age is themselves 16, 17, 18, the police might decide a caution is an adequate response.
"It doesn't happen that often though; the number of people given cautions for this type of behaviour is small compared to those who are charged for this kind of behaviour."
The Home Office said: "The Government is absolutely clear that serious offenders should always be prosecuted and taken to court.
"Only in exceptional circumstances should cautions be given to people who download indecent images of children, and only after close scrutiny by a senior police officer. But these remain operational decisions for police forces.
"All offenders cautioned for such offences are placed on the sex offenders register and required to report regularly to police."
A spokesman for Northumbria Police said: "With greater awareness now than ever before about Child Sexual Exploitation and abuse, more people are coming forward to report offences.
"There has been a national increase in reports of child sexual abuse and we believe this is due to more confidence in reporting to police and a greater awareness. We welcome the increase in reporting and ensure each report is fully investigated and appropriate action taken on a case-by-case basis.
"Safeguarding children is a major element in helping us reduce harm to the most vulnerable in our communities and is a priority for the force.
"There is constant ongoing partnership work between ourselves and agencies such as National Crime Agency and Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre.
"We have effective arrangements in place to identify and take action against those we suspect are using the internet for illegal activity and the abuse of children."