MORE petty criminal offenders in Cambridgeshire are being given the chance to make amends rather than end up with criminal records that can hamper the rest of their lives.

Chief Constable Simon Parr is promoting the use of 'restorative justice' across the county in order to avoid costly criminal cases for minor offences that he believes should be dealt with away from the court system.

Mr Parr gave the example of a 15-year-old boy who touched his girlfriend's breast during a teenage petting session and was put on the sex offenders register.

The Cambridgeshire teenager, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was found guilty of indecent assault by a court, and placed on the register for five years.

It means he must inform the police within three days if he changes his name or address, and disclose if he is spending seven days or more away from his home.

But even after five years the offence will continue to show up during CRB checks.

Mr Parr said: "Two 15-year-olds - a boy and a girl - went off into the woods for a kiss and a cuddle. The boy placed a hand on the girl's breast. It was not unusual or ridiculous behaviour.

"The girl went home and told her mum. The mum decided this was out of order. Legally, under 16 that young lady is not allowed to consent to that, and so that 15-year-old was found guilty of an indecent assault and he is on the sex offenders register now for five years.

"The sex offenders register is not designed for cases such as this. Thousands of pounds of public money was spent putting him in court.

"We have done him and the girl and her mum a disservice. That is the sort of thing I do not want us to spend our time on. Restorative justice offers our staff a means of dealing with that action within an hour.

"We would not spend 30-40 hours on it and we wouldn't go around alienating families as I expect we did in this case."

About 120 petty offenders in Cambridgeshire have been dealt with through a restorative justice system, in which victims of crime are given the chance to meet the culprits, get an apology and determine the next course of action.

They included a 20-year old thief who was made to sweep the floors at a Huntingdon shop after stealing £15 of goods.

Police estimate the system has saved 1,000 man-hours since February and stopped expensive court procedures.

Mr Parr added: "Officers in Cambridgeshire are being encouraged to use their professional judgment and look at all the options available to resolve a criminal investigation involving a minor offence, especially when dealing with children.

"Restorative justice provides an alternative to the traditional process of arrest and punishment.

"That said, the needs of victims remain a priority and are always considered."

According to figures released last week by the Howard League for Penal Reform, 4,054 children were arrested in Cambridgeshire in 2008, down to 3,795 in 2009, and 3,440 in 2010.