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Tackling teenage knife crime – is prison the answer?

Penelope Gibbs
08 Dec 2016

“Once two boys tried to rob me. They were bigger than me, but when I pulled my knife out and acted like a nutter, they decided it was not worth it and left. If I hadn’t done that they would have beaten the shit out of me”. Paul aged 21

Everyone should be worried by an increase in police recorded knife crime (carrying or using a knife) of 9% in a year, and that 10 teenagers have been stabbed to death in London this year.  But remedies are more difficult to find. The police are enforcers of the law, but they know that more enforcement is not the answer. Bernard Hogan-Howe told a conference recently that knife crime is prevalent both inside and outside outside gangs (75% of young people’s knife injuries are not gang related): “The reasons, so far as we can determine by talking to suspects, are self-protection, status, protecting criminal interests – such as a drugs business – and a culture of fear. This can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, where young people equip themselves with a knife and in doing so significantly up the ante of their chances of becoming a knife victim.”  Teenage boys feel they are not safe without a knife and the fear of being attacked is greater than the fear of the punishment if caught.

The police and other practitioners are convinced that until young people’s fear of each other is allayed, teenagers will continue to carry knives.

Many MPs are convinced that tougher sanctions are the answer.  In 2014 campaigners (including myself) lost a battle against a new law mandating a prison sentence for anyone from 16 upwards who was convicted twice of carrying a knife.  Since that new inflexible law was brought in, knife crime has gone up.  So the threat of imprisonment is certainly not deterring teenagers and young people from carrying knives. Nor have ever lengthening prison sentences – for knife possession they have almost doubled in ten years from an average of 3.6 months in 2005 to 6.1 months in 2015.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council brought out guidelines on how to sentence knife crime in 2008 (since when prison sentences have risen considerably). Their successor, the Sentencing Council is consulting on new guidelines now.  Unfortunately their consultation does not address the key question of how effective different sentences are in reducing knife crime, and the guidelines for under 18 year olds are in their current form certain simply to increase the number of children imprisoned.  They propose that the starting point for judges in the case of a child found with a knife (which they have not used) should be a short prison sentence even if there is “minimal risk of the weapon being used to threaten or cause harm” and no/minimal distress.

Most teenagers who are imprisoned end up in Young Offender Institutions, where violence is rife and from which c 70% go on to re-offend within the year.  There is no evidence prison deters either the individual or his peers from carrying a knife. Most children found with a knife are now currently given a community sentence, but the new guidelines, if slavishly followed, would lead to more imprisonment. This would be a regressive step given that the numbers of under 18 year olds imprisoned has gone down by two thirds in the last 8 years.

I don’t condone carrying knives – far from it – but teenagers who carry knives are afraid, caught in a current of crime from which they can see no way of extricating themselves. We need to throw them a lifebuoy, rather than letting them be carried away by peer pressure inside and outside prison.