The government has ordered a review into the use of police cautions amid fears that too many criminals are avoiding court.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the investigation would focus on the use of cautions against people who commit serious crimes, including sexual offences.
The measures are used at the discretion of police.
Grayling said the number of cautions being handed out by officers had "spiralled out of control" and varied between different police forces.
He told The Sun: "I am worried about some recent cases where cautions have been given to criminals who have committed multiple crimes.
"The number of cautions given for sexual offences is going in the right direction - down - but we need this review to make sure they are only given where truly appropriate."
He added that although officers should use their discretion, the public and victims "have a right to expect people who commit serious crimes to be brought before a court".
Police handed out 205,700 cautions in the 12 months ending to September 2012, according to the latest figures from the Ministry of Justice.
It represented a 12% decrease compared with the previous 12 months, and a 44% fall from the 12 months to September 2007 when the use of cautions peaked at 367,300.