Knife crime increasing, are government policies working?

The Government yesterday released the latest quarterly statistics on knife crime and related offences.

Knife crime has been a particular prior for the Government and the Court as a result of some high profile cases where people have died as a result of knife attacks. Over the last 5 or 6 years, there has been various developments including Court of Appeal cases strengthening the guideline sentences, the legislation in 2012 bringing in maximum penalties (of 6 months for adults and 4 months Detention and Training Order for youths aged 16 or 17) for people found using knives to threaten in either a public place or a school, through to 2015 when legislation was brought in bringing in similar minimum sentences for adults and youths aged 16-17 for second offences of knife crimes.

In addition, extra guidance has been given on restricting the use of police cautions both in terms of adult cautions and youth conditions or youth conditional cautions.

The statistics show the result of these changes. The latest figures show the continued effect of these changes, in particular the number of adult offenders given an immediate custodial sentence has increased from 19% to 39% in the last 8 years and the number receiving a caution has dropped from 31% to 8%. In terms of juvenile offenders, the number receiving immediate custody rose from 6% to 13% and the number receiving cautions dropped from 47% to 29%. In addition, the average custodial sentence imposed was at its highest for 8 years, namely 8.3 months.

The most common disposal for possession of a knife is still immediate custody.

The above statistics tend to suggest that the changes are working. However, a closer look could provide a different picture. Despite the increasing use of custody and the decreasing use of cautions or softer penalties, the statistics don’t show that improvements have continued since the initial toughening of the regime. In particular, although the latest figures are 14% lower than in March 2011, there has been a 9% increase in the amount of crimes committed using a knife or bladed article, as compared with the year ending in the previous quarter (December 2015). Indeed there have been increases in the number of offences involving the use of a knife since March 2013. There have also been increases in the number of offences where knives were used to threaten.

In summary, whilst the changes have resulted in a tougher sentencing regime and a significant drop in the number of cautions administered, the types of offences which the Government and the Courts are most keen to restrict (namely using knives to commit crime and using knives to threaten) are on the rise. This calls into question the whole basis upon which the toughened sentencing regime was introduced.

Arguably, another more educational approach needs to be used. Particularly amongst young people, there is a growing tendency for the carrying of knives and the idea that others have knives so they need to protect themselves. In a world where they are increasingly exposed to violent imagery all of the time, this is a particularly worrying trend. Overall, it would appear a more holistic approach might be of benefit, rather than simply, a continuing toughening of the sentencing regime.

By Rob Moussalli

Head of the Youth Court Department at Burton Copeland

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