On Tuesday the House of Commons will consider amendments to the proposed Offensive Weapons Bill. These amendments include the introduction of Knife Crime Prevention Orders (KCPOs) for those as young as 12. The introduction of what is being termed knife ASBOs is part of the government’s response to the increase of violent knife crime, which is being termed by many as a national crisis.
Despite heavy criticism from professionals involved in the criminal justice system, the government is determined to proceed with the introduction of these orders and have refused to consider redrafting the bill with amendments suggested by the Magistrates’ Association, Prison Reform Trust, Standing committee on Youth Justice and the Association of Youth offending Team Managers.
Government’s proposal for Knife Crime Prevention Orders
Under the new proposals police would be able to make an application to a magistrates’ court for a KCPO. One could lawfully be imposed on anyone aged 12 and over, if the court was satisfied on the balance of probabilities, that on at least two occasion they had a bladed article in a public place or on school premises (including further education premises), without a good reason or lawful authority.
The court would only impose such an order if they think it is necessary in order to protect the public, or a particular member of the public from the risk of harm involving a blade. The order could also be made if it was necessary to prevent a person from committing an offence involving a bladed article.
The purpose of making such the order would be to add restrictions to that person to achieve the aims of the order and could include curfews, geographical restrictions, engagement with invention, restriction on who they associate with and also restrictions on their use of social media.
The government also intend to introduce KCPOs for those who have been convicted of criminal offences if the offence for which they have been convicted was a “relevant offence” and again if the court thinks it is necessary to impose one. Again, these conviction KCPOs could be for anyone aged 12 and over but wouldn’t be limited to those convicted of possession of a bladed article. They could also be imposed when a defendant has been convicted of an offence involving violence, or a bladed article was used by the defendant or any other person in the commission of the offence or the defendant or another person who committed the offence had a bladed article with them when the offence was committed.
It’s very clear that should these knife ASBOs come into force they could be used quite widely and given the deep public concerns about knife crime they might be applied quite liberally as a preventative measure. The court would only have to be satisfied there was evidence that showed that it was more likely than not that a person had carried a blade on two occasions. The court would not have to be sure there was a history of carrying a knife before imposing the order and restrictions. Even for those who have been convicted of a criminal offence a KCPO as part of sentencing could be used for a large number of offences. Many might ask, are these restrictions so terrible if it helps to reduce the number of weapons on the street?
Firstly, there is no evidence that these proposed KCPOs would have any significant impact on knife crime. But any breach of the restrictions imposed as part of the order would be a criminal offence which carries a maximum sentence of 2 years imprisonment. Given how similar they are to ASBOs that can already be imposed people wonder why the need for a new initiative which is so similar?
Knife crime is a huge concern. The weapons that are being carried are terrifying and so to the number of senseless deaths on what seem to be a weekly basis from knife attacks. There has been a significant focus on youths carrying knives, the thought of children who lack maturity to understand the consequences of their actions and are in fact armed, is distressing. Although it’s important to note that the Youth Justice Board statistics of 2017/18 show that of the knife and offensive weapons offences committed that year, 79 percent were committed by adults. But those who work with young people fear these KCPOs which can be imposed on those as young as 12, will predominately be aimed at children and young people given the current mood.
The reasons knifes are being carried are varied. If a child carried a knife because of fear for their own safety in their own communities it’s likely they will continue to do so even if a KCPO is imposed. If they carry a knife because they’ve been encouraged by others or need to do so in order to be part of a group/ gang or be accepted by their friends, they will probably continue to do so and won’t be deterred because of restrictions on them. They won’t want to stop or be able to stop because of peer pressure. It really does start to beg the question of where is the necessary support for any child or young person to help break the cycle of knife carrying. A step back needs to be taken and to look at what the solution is to the epidemic of knife crime it is a public health approach. There will also be those who have in fact been merely suspected of carrying knives and made subject to restrictions they are unlikely to keep, especially if it’s to stop them using social media sites or where they are allowed to go. Given that KCPO’s seem to be a reinvention of the ASBO it’s important to note that the Youth Justice Board’s evaluation of ASBOS back in 2006 suggested young people didn’t under the detail of the orders and stringent conditions were openly broken.
Just to add another level of complication to this neat response to knife crime by the government, let’s look at what we know about children and young people already in the criminal justice system who might well be those who have a KCPO as part of a sentence. A 2015 study has shown that 60 percent of young people in the youth justice system have speech, language and communication needs. In 2017 the Youth justice Board reported that of all admissions to youth custody, 61 percent of young people were not engaged in education, there were substances misuse concerns for the 45 percent of those admitted, 33 percent were looked after children, 33 percent were rated as having mental health concerns, 32 percent as having learning disability or difficulty concerns. These figures are in fact set out in the resources for Judges in England and Wales. These all suggest that many young people would be poorly equipped to simply break the cycle of knife carrying without support.
There is no easy or quick solution to knife crime but when we try and address the issue it should be in a balanced and proportionate way. The KCPO’s are not a necessary development of the law and are seeking to close a gap that does not, on closer inspection, exist. Professions in the criminal justice question the need for this new Knife ASBO initiative as there is no evidence it will help. However, experience tells them that if implemented, how that happens could damage trust between communities and the police and the justice system overall. The cost of the implementation and policing of these orders have to be factored in. Some would argue that the funds for this new initiative could simply be used to fund more policing given that we have laws which make it a criminal offence to carry a bladed article in a public place and other methods of monitoring suspected criminal behaviour. When the Home Office first proposed KCPOs they stated they were to be used to target the prevention of crimes but again, there are other more effective methods of prevention that are desperate for better funding or other initiatives to consider. Instead of perhaps trying to restrict social media there could be projects with internet companies whereby those looking for violent material can instead be directed to material steering youths away from knife crime? After all the internet is one of the most powerful tools we have.
If as suspected these orders would be used on many young people. if they suddenly use social media when they are not allowed, or break a curfew or go to a street they shouldn’t, they commit a crime. Those children who had not even been convicted of a crime when the order was imposed are now in the justice system, they face sentencing and they will have a criminal record. For those who have already been convicted, they face more convictions and being further marginalised and their future opportunities damaged because of their criminal record. Suddenly this well-meaning but poorly thought out initiative has made more children criminals. Instead of preventing crime it has created it.