A teenager was stopped with a three-and-a-half inch knife hidden in his waistband.

A drunken offender kissed a disabled woman against her will and made lewd comments.

Teenagers threatened to kill a friend, their mother and girlfriend.

Those offenders all avoided getting a criminal record and were not punished in court, but instead joined thousands of offenders handed a growing docket of so-called out of court disposals, including penalty notices, reprimands and community resolutions.

More than 18,000 such disposals were handed out by Sussex Police in 2012 and 2013, out of an average 40,000 crimes recorded by police a year.

Most were for lower-level offences such as cannabis possession and theft, but the list also includes far more serious cases including trafficking in drugs, child cruelty, and sexual assaults on children.

Police say the headline offences often hide lower-level situations and insist the disposals are designed for “low risk, low-level and mostly first time offenders” – and consulting the victim is a key part.

Superintendent Julia Pope, of Sussex Police, said: “Out of court disposals are not suitable for contested or more serious cases. They would not normally be considered for those who offend repeatedly.

“The factors affecting the disposal and outcome of a particular case are determined by a range of variable facts and circumstances, influenced by legislation and national guidance.

“The headline offence title does not always reflect the sometimes minor nature of the circumstances. There are comprehensive polices and processes in place for each option, whether low-level or serious.”

Lisa Perretta sees out-of-court disposals in action every day in her work battling crime for businesses in Brighton.

Sussex Police dealt with 3,577 thefts from shops out of court over the past two years.

Ms Perretta, chairwoman of the Brighton and Hove Business Crime Reduction Partnership, delivers community resolutions for thefts, supposed to be used when the offender has admitted guilt and is remorseful.

She said the programme, which included offenders being hauled to charity shop Oxfam for at least half-an-hour of volunteering as payback, appeared to work. Out of 100 community resolutions she said only two people are known to have offended again.

She said: “We probably do about one a week for theft, where a young person has got no criminal history and the shop is happy with that solution. It could be person has also paid a donation to the shop.

“Sometimes they come in with a bit of an attitude but we tend to turn it around and they are fully aware that if they don’t complete it they will get arrested.

“We have had two reoffends out of all the ones we have done. But they were two that we had said were above the threshold for community resolution.

“They were referred onto our scheme and we said they may have fitted the criteria but because of what was going on their lives they were not really going to deal with the offence and all its implications.

“If it transpires that the person is offending again then we will impress upon the police that they need to be given the highest sanction.”

But she believes theft is on the increase, not helped by a perception that it is dealt with lightly.

She said: “If you burgle someone’s house you get a really tough sentence. If burglars go and nick from a store they take just as much money, but if they go to court they are never going to get as high a sentence.

“A lot of the shops feel that by taking it to court they have to spend all that time dealing with the situation, so many are going down the civil recovery route in order to get money back.”

She said there should be stricter rules around people being eligible for community resolution despite having committed a different type of offence, but noted saving police officers’ time had its advantages.

She said: “It is positive for the business community if a community resolution is agreed and dealt with, then it does not take the officer off the street. That is a plus for the businesses, and also for the community.”

Superintendent Pope said: “The use of out of court disposals means that more time can be spent on frontline duties and tackling serious crime.”

She said officers agreed it is not appropriate to deal with “prolific” shoplifters with community resolutions.

She said: “Cases of theft can be dealt with out of court if they are first-time offences and involve relatively small value items.

“In those cases we might serve the victim with a fixed penalty notice or could use community resolution, such as getting the offender to return the stolen goods and apologise to the victim.”

In January 2103, a panel was set up to scrutinise individual cases dealt with by community resolutions and consider whether they should have been dealt with differently.

Magistrates, police (including Superintendent Pope) and council representatives meet every few months at Sussex Police headquarters to discuss cases, for about ten minutes per case.

The panel’s minutes show that since August 2013 it has deemed five cases to be inappropriate use of community resolution or inconsistent with policy, while members have expressed “reservations” about others.

One of those deemed inappropriate was a theft in which goods bought online were not received. The offender lived outside of the country, so two police forces were involved.

The panel agreed this was an “incorrect” use of community resolution, because there was “an intent to deceive, the offender had a previous reprimand for theft, the second payment was not made, and a great deal of police time was involved but the issue not fully resolved”.

A second case involved a sexual assault in which an offender under the influence of alcohol entered his disabled victim’s flat, said to her ‘give us a kiss’ and made further “offensive remarks and suggestions”.

The panel decided that, while the offender was remorseful, the offender’s background was not fully known and the drunkenness was an aggravating feature.

The panel said: “The victim wanted action but this was a complex situation so community resolution may have seemed suitable whereas it may have been better to prosecute and deal with at court.”

In a third case two 14-year-olds hung around two female students’ home and broke in when they went out – one taking the items and the other acting as the ‘look-out’.

The youths had no offending history but denied the offence, meaning community resolution should not have been used.

The panel said: “It is of concern that 14-year-olds were inciting nine-year-olds to be involved, who, as ‘children’ were unlikely to be prosecuted.”

Nothing happens to the offender if the panel decides a community resolution was wrongly used. But the officer in the case is spoken to, police said.

Supt Pope said senior officers looked at cases considered for out of court disposal.

In another case, friends threatened to kill a 16-year-old and her family after she ‘liked’ a Blackberry message about a high-profile murder case. Police said it was a “prank that got out of hand”. The panel deemed community resolution was appropriate.

One sexual assault case looked at by the panel involved a girl sending an “inappropriate” image via her phone to a boy who had demanded it. They met by arrangement, resulting in an “altercation”.

The panel concluded police had been right not to criminalise “a vulnerable person who needs further support”.

They said: “Had this case not been dealt with by community resolution then the offender could have had a record on the sex offenders register.

“There is a question as to what the police can or cannot do in such a situation so a community resolution was considered to be the best decision on balance.”

It was one of 133 “concerning” sexual offences dealt with out-of-court over the past two years. In many of the crimes the victims were children and 41 involved obscene publications and material.

They included five sexual assaults on a female under 13 and eight offences of sexual assault on a male aged 13 and over.

Fabia Bates, director of Brighton-based sexual abuse charity Survivors’ Network, said the figure was, on the face of it, concerning.

She said: “We certainly don’t have similar rates of out of court disposals with the clients referred to us.

“That therefore suggests that a significant proportion of the victims in such cases are not being referred to specialist services for support.

“As we offer counselling, workshops and helpline and many other services as well as our advocacy support through the court process, this is extremely concerning.”

She stressed it was difficult to comment without knowing details of specific cases, but highlighted reasons why a victim might not support a prosecution.

She said: “Obviously reporting a serious sexual offence, and providing evidence both prior to and during a criminal case, can be extremely traumatic and is not something that anyone does lightly.

“They will be cross-examined and often accused of lying.

“The courts are currently facing huge delays and we are seeing an increasing number of our clients being place on what is called a ‘warned’ list, meaning that although they may be given an earlier trial date it can be changed at any point up to the night before causing extreme distress.”

Asked about out-of-court disposals involving children as victims in sex crimes, Supt Pope said the force worked “closely with a range of criminal justice partners and in circumstances involving children and young people decisions are regularly taken in consultation to ensure the right outcome is achieved”.

She said: “In the right circumstances, placing an offender before a court is always an option if necessary.

“Offences that sit under the category of sexual offences or trafficking in controlled drugs can be dealt with out of court if they are low level, do not involve prolific offenders and where a prosecution could lead to a worse result for the victim. We would assess each case individually, with the families of those involved and other agencies such as social services, but would not look to prosecute them if that would be heavy-handed for the offence.”

Sussex Police may yet be forced to change the way it handles out of court disposals by national policymakers.

The Government ran a national consultation on the use of out-of-court disposals from November 2013 until January 2014 and is expended to publish its result soon.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling said offenders are “more likely to go to jail, and for longer”, under the coalition government.

The Ministry of Justice has issued guidance to police forces that criminals should not get more than one caution in a two-year period for the same, or similar offence, but said its use is a matter for local police.

Brighton and Hove City Councillor Geoffrey Theobald, who has just joined the Sussex Police and Crime Panel, said cases need to be looked at individually.

He said: “At the end of the day what you want is for the perpetrator not to do it again.”