“We know that police enforcement alone is not the long-term solution to knife crime. Stop & Search undoubtedly saves lives, but if we really want to do something to change the fact that our children are dying, something very different is required”. This was the reaction of John Sutherland, who was a senior commander in the Met Police, to the government’s proposal to introduce knife crime ASBOs (technically knife crime prevention orders).
The idea for knife crime ASBOs came ironically from another senior commander in the Met Police. Chief Superintendant Ade Adelekan despaired at the police’s inability to stem knife crime and teenage deaths and felt that a new ASBO style law would help – a civil order on children and adults who were suspected of carrying a knife. The police have ample powers to charge anyone they catch with a knife. But Ade wanted to closely monitor those he could not catch red-handed. So he proposed the new law to the Home Office and they thought it was a great idea. The Home Office didn’t consult youth offending teams, social workers or those who work with disaffected teenagers. They did consult the Ministry of Justice which thought it was a bad idea.
The Home Office went ahead anyway. But in the hurry to calm public anxiety, they are using enforcement to resolve an entrenched social problem. Teenagers carry knives because they are afraid of their peers. Many teenagers are also exploited by adults and coerced into carrying knives. This new ASBO will be imposed on children who are suspected of carrying knives from the age of 12. The proposed legislation gives the court carte blanche to impose restrictions – the government have suggested bans on social media, bans on meeting friends and curfews, but it could be anything. The potential punishment for breaking the order is imprisonment for up to a year. So a teenager, who is merely suspected of carrying a knife, could be banned from social media, and then imprisoned for using social media, without ever having been convicted of a crime. Will such draconian measures stop teenagers carrying knives? Unlikely.
Knive crime ASBOs are likely to have bad unintended consequences. Teenagers and police already have a fraught relationship, marked by mistrust. Victims and witnesses of knife crime often refuse to tell the police what happened. These restrictive orders will increase mistrust of police since they, in effect, give the police power to punish without evidence. The orders are likely to be imposed proportionally more on teenagers from black and minority ethnic communities. Already BAME boys outnumber white boys in youth offender institutions. This disparity will undoubtedly get worse.
So what should we do about knife crime? Corey Junior Davis was a black teenager who was convicted of carrying a knive and suspected of dealing drugs. He was shot dead in 2017 aged 14 in a street in North-East London. He is typical of the boys involved in serious youth violence – he was known to the police, he was supervised by the Youth Offending Team, he was on and off the books of childrens’ services. But none of these services ever addressed his underlying problems – ADHD, difficulties in secondary school and exploitation by peers who were deeply involved in crime. His mother begged for help from agencies, including for the family to be rehoused, but never got the help she sought. A knife crime ASBO would’ve done nothing to prevent Corey being exploited and killed. Like most of those suspected of carrying knives, his issues were complex. He was causing trouble, but putting himself at risk. The Coreys on our streets need protecting, not punishing with restrictive orders.
Meanwhile the politicians are giving very mixed messages on knife crime ASBOs. The Labour front bench goaded the government into introducing the measure, but many Labour MPs have voiced concerns. The knife crime ASBO will lead to more teenagers serving short sentences, but Justice Minister Rory Stewart says such sentences are useless. If only politicians could also reach a consensus that knife crime is a serious problem, which needs serious long term solutions, not hastily drawn up legislation with no evidence to support it.