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Getting to the heart of knife crime in the UK

Last night three prisoners were stabbed in Pentonville, one fatally, a tragic reminder that something must be done to address the prevalence of knife crime in the UK. That said, the government proposals for tougher sentencing for knife offences will be ineffective in reducing knife crime and have the potential to inflict serious injustice on society, especially young people. Sentences are already harsh and yet knife crime continues to rise. We need a more meaningful approach which will actually prevent knife crime and save lives.

Under current legislation, a second knife offence will result in a mandatory custodial sentence of six months for adults and a 4 month Detention and Training Order for 16 and 17 year olds “unless it is unjust to do so in all the circumstances.” At present, the most common disposal for knife possession offences is immediate custody for adults. 34% of adults were sentenced to immediate imprisonment last year, which is the highest in almost ten years. In 2015, 13% of youths received immediate custodial sentences for possession of a knife, compared to only 6% in 2008. Despite this, knife crime has continued to increase, with a 9% increase this year. There is no correlation between longer sentences and reduced crime levels and increased sentences will therefore not work as a deterrent.

Mandatory sentences and lengthy terms of imprisonment as sentencing starting points unfairly affect vulnerable people. When there are substantial mitigating factors, defendants should not automatically face prison sentences for offences where a knife has been carried but not brandished or used. For instance, young people and vulnerable adults who have mental health problems or severe learning difficulties; those who have been coerced into carrying a knife; or have carried a knife for protection because they have been a victim of crime. Under proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines, the court will have even less discretion not to impose a custodial sentence. This will lead to injustice in many cases.

Not only would further increasing custodial sentences for knife offences be potentially unjust, it would also fail to protect the public. Recidivism rates in Britain are very high, even more so for youths, 68.5% of whom will reoffend within 12 months of being released from custody. Diverting or rehabilitating offenders is more effective than punishment in terms of protecting the public.

The proposals would mean that more youths will end up in custody, the aim of which is to deter others from knife crime. This goes against the statutory principal aim of the youth justice system which is to prevent offending by children and young persons, while safeguarding their welfare.

In order to effectively combat the increasing levels of knife crime, its cause must be addressed. Research conducted by the Howard League for Penal Reform in “why carry a weapon” found that the main reason provided by those who have carried knives is for protection. From Sean’s experience working as a defence solicitor since 2005 and Elena’s experience in criminal defence and in a youth project in Southwark, it is clear that many people resort to carrying knives when they have previously been a victim of crime or have had friends or family attacked or threatened.

Young people and ethnic minority groups are the most likely to be victims of knife crime but are also more likely to feel harassed and targeted by police. Black men are still disproportionately stopped and searched and the effect of this unfairness in treatment is that trust in the police for protection is damaged. This undoubtedly contributes to some people feeling that carrying a knife is their only option.

It is therefore essential that fairer policing and a focus on community based policing, is prioritised so that all members of society to feel protected by the state and do not resort to protecting themselves in ways that are dangerous to them and others.

It is also important to acknowledge that local authority funding has been substantially cut from youth services all over the country and the effect this has had on the rise in youth knife crime. With no safe venues, young people are more likely to be out on the street, without support or positive role models. In Southwark, a London borough with one of the highest rates of knife crime, at least half its youth service budget has been cut in recent years, resulting in several youth centres shutting down. If funding can be found to put more young people in custody, at the cost of up to six times the school fees for Eton per year, funding must be found to reinstate youth services which are vital in reducing youth related crime and keeping young people safe.

The UK has an exploding prison population, which is the highest in Western Europe. More custodial sentences and longer custodial sentences have not reduced knife crime so far. Until we have more effective solutions we will continue to see the tragic effect of knife crime and mass incarceration on communities throughout the UK.

This article first appeared in Criminal Law & Justice Weekly.