Knife crime has been a cause for grave concern by politicians and the wider public for decades. Its sharp rise in recent months has featured heavily in media reports and a vast quantity of material and discussions have been published on the issue. It is wrong and unhelpful to dismiss this as a ‘moral panic’: at the time of writing (16 April 2018) there had been 59 killings in London alone using knives or blades this year. Knife crime has gone up even more steeply than the overall rise in crime generally – by 21% in the 12 months to September 2017.

The current situation may not be new but aspects of it are novel. For example, increased use of the internet and social media to spread messages of gang violence has raised tensions and dramatically increased the speed at which situations can escalate. This growing violence indicates that the previous approaches of legislating to prevent the problem are failing. Police cuts, the closure of many youth services and the increase in school exclusions are all part of a landscape in which knife crime has proliferated. As Sarah Jones MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime has written, ‘the issues go deep – from mental health to social media, from poverty to fashion’ (‘Knife crime is an epidemic. Do we care enough to look for a cure?’, Opinion piece in The Guardian, 30 November 2017).

This article asks whether state agencies are avoiding the real issues and failing both the perpetrators and victims of knife crime. Further, it is important to identify the importance of multi-disciplinary perspectives, including criminological theories and a recognition of the complexity of this phenomenon.

A brief history

The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 made it a criminal offence to carry an item made, adapted or intended to cause injury to the person (though not knives per se). Prior to this it had not been an offence to carry weapons in public. Parliament was concerned about a disturbing rise in violent crime and this legislation was aimed at ’the type of young ruffian who, often in a gang… sets out to terrorise other people in the neighbourhood’.

The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 was enacted in order to deal with the perceived use of flick knives by delinquent youths and gangs. It banned the manufacture, sale and possession of flick knives on the basis that ’the very fact that youngsters carry around these knives so nonchalantly is dangerous in itself, because it creates an outlook on the part of the youth of this country that it is the proper and natural thing to do.’

Knives (and other bladed articles) were prohibited in public places with some exceptions in 1988 under s 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (CJA 1988).

In 1996 Parliament was again concerned with knife crime in the wake of the murder of head teacher Philip Lawrence. As Jimmy Wray MP for Glasgow Provan put it in a parliamentary debate in 1996: ‘I want young people to be heroes, to give up their knives and stop the senseless murders and stabbings. Carrying a knife is not for protection or a sign of strength; it is a sign of weakness in people without the courage to take knives off the streets.’

Does criminal justice come too late?

Knife crime falls into two categories: crimes with victims and victimless crime, a term used to describe individuals found in possession of knives but not having used them in a threatening or violent manner. In respect of the former, the victim – often a vulnerable and disadvantaged individual – can be scarred physically or mentally and the damage done to that person and his or her loved ones is impossible to measure. The rehabilitation of the offender, if it happens at all, can come too late to provide any practical assistance to the victims, apart from the relief that others will be spared their ordeal at the hands of that same offender. If rehabilitation fails, the offender re-offends with ever more severe consequences. With victimless knife crime, the criminal justice system has more of a chance to protect the public and rehabilitate the offender. In these serious cases offenders usually carry knives, which are often taken from a kitchen drawer, to provide protection from others armed with similar weapons.

The aims of Parliament and the courts to remove such weapons from public places are clearly laudable. However, new sentencing guidelines – which indicate a custodial sentence for a first such offence and mandatory minimum custodial sentences imposed by Parliament for a second offence – put deterrence as opposed to rehabilitation at the forefront of the sentencing process. Given the short custodial sentences and limited supervision on release, the reasons for carrying a blade in the first place can often remain unaddressed.

Deterrence, according to s 142(1)(b) of the CJA 2003, is only a legitimate purpose of a sentence if it serves to reduce crime. Are offenders deterred by mandatory minimum custodial sentences and harsher sentencing guidelines? Practical experience (over 15 years of defending young people accused of violent crime in the criminal courts), supported by Ministry of Justice figures and the sharp increase in knife crime generally, suggests not. In 2008, 18% of those convicted of carrying knives and other offensive weapons were imprisoned and 8% given suspended sentences; by 2017, 36% were imprisoned and a further 19% given a suspended sentence (see ‘Nine charts on the rise of knife crime in England and Wales’, Danny Shaw, BBC News website, 25 January 2018). The increased use of custodial sentences has accompanied a spike in knife crime.

Rooting out the causes

A different approach might involve the abolition by Parliament of mandatory minimum sentences which fetter judicial discretion in all but the most unusual of cases. The new sentencing guidelines could be replaced with a scheme that prioritises rehabilitation over deterrence and addresses the root causes of knife carrying: why is the young person afraid in their own local area; why is the young person associating with others who carry weapons; is the young person being controlled or influenced by other more senior gang members; if so, how can they be helped to break free from this?

Short custodial sentences could be replaced by more individualised sentences, tailored to the particular circumstances of each offender and involving the appropriate external agencies following referrals from the probation service. Clearly, this approach is not suitable for every offence involving a knife or for every offender found in possession of one – but many first and second time offenders could be prevented from moving on to more serious offending by early, focused intervention.

Knife crime is complex because it is so easy to commit. Knives are cheap and available in every home and supermarket, whereas firearms are expensive and difficult to source legally and illegally. Banning the sale of knives to children or banning the sale of flick knives, or present day equivalent the ‘Zombie knife’, has not and will not solve the problem.

The identification of risk factors at an early stage might help to explain why children commit crime but a network of support is more or less absent from our justice model for children pre- or post-criminal conduct. The Youth Offending Service is chronically underfunded, for example, and investment needs to be poured into youth services, not cut back.

Solutions: giving a foot up

Within a classroom picked at random, we have children from minority backgrounds, children who are poor attenders, children from disturbed backgrounds where domestic abuse might be a part of everyday life, children with single parents who struggle to cope with a job and childcare, children with unidentified mental health problems, or children with all of the above. Just how ill-equipped our education system is to break this cycle of disadvantage was revealed in the research paper ‘Making The Difference: Breaking the Link between School Exclusion and Social Exclusion’ by Kiran Gill (Institute for Public Policy Research, October 2017). This examined the extent, causes, costs and consequences of school exclusion and spawned a two-year pilot project, The Difference, founded by Gill to improve outcomes for excluded pupils and reduce exclusion through training teachers in supporting pupil mental health challenges, learning difficulties and those facing harmful experiences; in fact the majority of today’s prison population were excluded when they were at school. The Education Select Committee as part of its remit to improve educational outcomes and life chances launched an inquiry into school exclusion and alternative provision in 2017.

A system of support to identify disadvantage and pre-empt any difficulty, including knife crime, would give a foot up to those who need it. Early intervention in its most effective form can equip children with a set of tools to deal with the unintended consequences of their actions and prevent a whole array of wrong decisions.

Holistic and multi-disciplinary

Schemes developed in recent years show the benefits of a cross-disciplinary, multi-agency approach. One example is the Violence Reduction Unit run by Police Scotland and Scottish charity Medics Against Violence to provide a support network for those identified as ‘most likely to offend’ where community police, teachers, healthcare and social workers advise on housing, relocation, employment and training. In Brixton, London, the Divert scheme, funded by the Metropolitan Police and run by the Milestone Foundation, offers support to young people in police detention in finding secure housing and sustainable employment through mentoring and referrals to organisations who can support their needs. These schemes demonstrate significant results: participants in the London-based Divert scheme have shown a very low 7% reoffending rate over 18 months (down from 29%); the Scottish approach has led to a significant reduction in knife crime north of the border (see p 19).

If politicians are serious about reducing knife crime, there must be proactive engagement between the justice system, youth services, housing, employment, education, health and – particularly – mental health sectors. Knife crime is not something that can be reduced arbitrarily by the police, courts or financial investment. It is a phenomena that is multi-faceted and the response must be too.

Contributors Sam Parham, barrister at Garden Court Chambers and Katharine Dyson, lecturer in law at the University of Westminster