Knife crime: do we need mandatory sentences?

There was a debate on the Today programme this morning about mandatory prison sentences for possession of a bladed instrument – to use the formal legal terminology – carrying a knife to you and me. A mother whose son had been killed while attending a party as a teenager was advocating not just prison for using a knife, but even for just carrying one; presumably as a means of deterring young people from so doing. Simon Hughes as the Minister had a difficult job talking about a policy on mandatory sentences advocated by one of his ministerial colleagues that his party leader has publically disagreed with.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a personal interest in knife crime for reasons I don’t need to discuss again in this post. However, as I have written in a piece for the Church Times, by coincidence published today, I am opposed to mandatory  prison sentences for carrying a knife or other bladed instrument. Unlike the mother interviewed on the Today programme, who dismissed the courts out of hand, I have more faith in the judiciary and the guidelines set down by the Sentencing Body and the higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

As well as being a victim of a knife crime, I also served for 20 years within the justice system, so I have considered this issue in my mind several times over the past few years. Draconian laws will have some effect. However, fishing is the most popular participation activity for men in this country, and it usually involves carrying a knife. Going on a summer picnic may involve carrying a knife to cut the cheese with or even the bread. Automatic prison sentences for carrying knives in these situations? There would presumably need to be the exception for those carrying on their trade, carpet fitters, chefs, and no doubt those that work in many other occupations and carry knives from place to place. So, perhaps we should just consider banning the carrying of knives by those under the age of eighteen, as we do with the sale of alcohol or cigarettes; and punish both the seller and the purchaser with prison? It would have an effect, but since even some in custody seem adept at creating bladed instruments from what is on hand in prison, it seems that where there is a will there is a way.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I prefer a different approach based upon education and earlier intervention. The Museum of Childhood ran an interesting exhibition on the subject of knife crime some time ago and their very readable booklet can be found at:  http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/__documents/teen_knife_crime_booklet.pdf  What is clear is that social media and the internet have allowed those opposed to knife crime the opportunity to spread their messages as much as those that want punitive action.

I don’t condone violence whether with a knife, gun or a fist, but dealing with those with anti-social attitudes just by locking them up doesn’t completely solve the problem.  Compared with a decade ago, knife crime, and many other crimes, seems on a downward trend. I remain to be convinced that harsher sentences will assist in reducing knife crime still further in society.

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4 thoughts on “Knife crime: do we need mandatory sentences?

  1. Always worth remembering in this debate that generally teenagers carry knives because they are afraid of being assaulted and carry one ‘to defend themselves’. Threats made by a system that these teenagers do not see as having their interests at heart will not be effective; it will just make them feel even more threatened. Making them feel that the streets are actually pretty safe and helping them to feel that the police and society in general is on their side is what might make a difference. It’s not like guns where you have to be pretty bad-ass to acquire one; knives are widely available as you say. Using a knife to assault or threaten someone as an act of aggression is a completely different thing and there is an argument for being pretty tough on such offenders although I agree with you, and Simon Hughes, that judges should be trusted to make appropriate judgements based on clear guidance but with maximum leeway if they need it.

  2. A recent programme on television was looking at the subject of parking fines. In this programme a driving instructor was stopped by the police whilst taking a client to her driving test. He was prevented in continuing his journey because he had an outstanding fine. His car was to be towed away. The driving instructor asked if he could remove some of the contents from his car. His client was understandably put out because of the inconvenience but was becoming demanding and scathing towards the instructor. She kept repeating that she wanted her money back and all her money for her lessons. He removed his sandwiches and a few screwdrivers and a picnic knife from his glove box and placed them on the grass along with his advertising sign etc. His client then exaggerated a reaction about the knife speaking loudly about the fact that he could have threatened her. The Driving instructor remained very calm and pointed out that the knife was just a picnic knife that he uses for his lunch. He took up the knife to show how innocent it was. Both the girl and the police lady reacted, the latter going into formal mode, demanded that he put the knife down. Before he could move a policeman moved forward and went through the process of handcuffing him. All were behaving as if they were now engaged in a ‘potentially’ dangerous situation. The Driving Instructor was remaining calm and dignified whilst others were having a ‘professional’ moment.
    I have wondered how the matter might have been later reported now he had been arrested and was subsequently taken to the Police Station. After all, they wouldn’t want to appear to have over-reacted! And imagine if the law of possessing a knife had already been passed.
    I too want to trust our judicial system, but I am becoming increasingly worried about how even professional people can so easily get carried away so that a technical application of a law, that must be seen to be supported, spirals into something hateful and destructive.
    I also worry that such laws could be used as a cover for some other reason. Meeting targets for example. Speculative and anxious I know, but isn’t the very idea of a ‘any knife’ law, already on the slope.

  3. This explains well why we need a court system separate from the police and CPS. The instructor could have lost his job and been given a criminal record for life if the CPS had suggested a conditional caution as an easy way out. What the courts do is in public and recorded; cautions and conditional cautions are given in private but can still affect a person for the rest of their lives.

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