More than a quarter of criminals caught by police in Devon and Cornwall last year had no previous offences, new figures show.

Law reform charity JUSTICE called for better access to mental health and addiction services to help reverse the worrying trend of increases in those entering the criminal justice system for the first time”.

Ministry of Justice figures show Devon and Cornwall Police dealt with 2,081 first-time offenders last year. This included 250 under 18-s.

Of those, 1,431 were convicted, while the rest were only cautioned.

It meant first-time offenders accounted for 27% of all criminals in Devon and Cornwall – slightly up from 26% the year before.

Tyrone Steele, deputy legal director of JUSTICE, said: “Entering the criminal justice system is life-changing in all the wrong ways.

“Providing and strengthening real routes away from crime – from better access to mental health and addiction services, to housing and employment – would help to reverse the worrying trend of increases in those entering the criminal justice system for the first time, including children.

Across England and Wales, around 63,700 first-time offenders were convicted in 2023, representing 22% of all criminals. This was similar to the year before, but up significantly from 14% in 2013.

A further 21,900 were handed a caution last year.

In Devon and Cornwall, 20% of those who were convicted for the first time received a community sentence, while 5% were sent to prison.

Campbell Robb, chief executive of social justice charity Nacro, said: “Much of the conversation on reducing crime focuses on prison and increasing sentencing despite the evidence showing that increasing the length of a prison sentences is not an effective deterrent.

Even a short sentence can mean people lose their jobs, homes and custody of their children, making it harder to build a crime-free life afterwards.

And the evidence shows that short prison sentences are less effective at preventing further crime than sentences served in the community.

In Devon and Cornwall, first-time offenders convicted of an indictable offence were most often convicted for violence against the person 23%. In contrast, the most common offence for those with a criminal past was theft, at 29%.

The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice were both approached for comment.