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The Fight Against Knife Crime: Will Tougher Sentencing do More Harm than Good?

The Fight Against Knife Crime: Will Tougher Sentencing do More Harm than Good?

The tragic death of Christina Edkins is one of a string of cases involving knife crime which have attracted media and political attention. However, as emotive as stories like this are, it is important that we do not lose sight of the need for fairness when considering ways of tackling the problem of knife crime. The problem is not one which can be easily fixed and it is highly questionable whether our prison system is equipped to provide the solution.

The proposal

James Morris, the MP for Halesowen, took the opportunity during the Prime Minister’s Question Time to call on tougher sentencing in order to ‘redouble’ efforts to tackle knife crime. He asked if the Prime Minister would agree that, ‘it is time to introduce a legal assumption that people carrying a knife intend to use it and should attract a prison sentence’.

David Cameron noted that the law has already been amended so that any adult found guilty of committing a crime with a knife can expect a custodial sentence, but that he would ‘happily look at’ the suggestion from Mr Morris. He also pointed out that the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, is ‘currently reviewing the powers available to the courts to deal with knife possession’ and that proposals would be brought forward ‘in due course’.

The perception of crime and ‘soft sentencing’

Patrick Worrall, in a blog for Channel 4 News, noted that while Chris Grayling has indeed indicated that he does plan to revisit the issue of knife crime, it is ‘unclear what the upshot of all this will be’. So what exactly are the current trends in knife crime and sentencing, and does sentencing need to be revisited?

Worrall argues that, although there have been claims that sentencing is getting softer under the coalition government, the statistics actually show very little change in sentencing over the last few years. Nevertheless, claims about soft sentencing continue to be aimed at the coalition, with Peter Cuthbertson from the Centre for Crime Prevention being a particularly vocal critic of what has been called ‘soft justice for serious, repeat offenders’.

The latest Ministry of Justice brief on sentencing for knife possession crimes showed a slight reduction in the number of such offences attracting an immediate sentence in the last quarter of 2012 in comparison to the same quarter in 2011. However, the brief pointed out that over the longer term, the figures show that the proportion of knife possession offences attracting a custodial sentence has in fact been on the rise since 2007.

The brief shows that, following conviction for knife possession crimes, 55 per cent of children aged 10 to 17 received community sentences, compared to 12 per cent who received custodial sentences. The ratios for adult offenders are much narrower, with 24 per cent being given community sentences and 30 per cent being given custodial sentences. If the proposed ‘legal assumption’ were to come into effect, we would likely see a dramatic change in these figures.

… the figures show that the proportion of knife possession offences attracting a custodial sentence has in fact been on the rise since 2007.

The case of R v Povey laid out stricter sentencing guidelines for those found guilty of being in possession of a knife or an offensive weapon, in recognition of what the court saw as a dangerous rise in possession offences. The court held that when sentencing, a judge should have at the forefront of his or her mind ‘the reduction of crime, including its reduction by deterrence, and the protection of the public’. Following the guidelines laid down in Povey, additional notes were made to the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines. The guidelines state that for offenders found possessing a weapon where the circumstances are not dangerous and where the weapon is not used to cause fear or to threaten, the starting point for sentencing should be 12 weeks in custody.

Against the sentencing guidelines and figures, we must consider the crime statistics. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) in its report, Focus On: Violent Crime and Sexual Offences 2011/12, which looked at violent offences in the year ending in March 2012, found that the number of recorded homicides for that period was the lowest since 1989. A later ONS Statistical Bulletin found that, for the year ending in September 2012, the number of homicides reported by the police was 549 – a decrease of 10 per cent from the previous year and the lowest recorded figure since 1978.

Although the figure for reported offences which involved a knife or sharp instrument in this latest report are high, at 28,964, it should be noted that this number actually represents an 11 per cent decrease on the previous year. The number of reported homicides which involved a knife or sharp instrument was 182 for the year ending in September 2012 which is a decrease of 19 per cent on the previous year.

It would be wrong to say that these figures show that crime in general and knife crime in particular are not real problems, but it is worth comparing these figures to the number of deaths caused by falls and transport accidents. The Focus On report highlighted that in the year ending March 2012, there were 3,885 deaths caused by falls and 1,815 deaths caused by transport accidents.

However, crime remains a serious concern among many people according to recent surveys. Perhaps in certain areas crime is more commonplace than others, but the public perception of crime is likely caused, to some degree at least, by the media attention that violent crimes receive. Cases like that of Christina Edkins are, of course, wholly worthy of reporting. However, the danger remains that such stories can distort our view of crime and lead to public fear, which in turn can be used by politicians to gain approval for harsh sentencing.

…crime remains a serious concern among many people according to recent surveys.

A report by Brooke Kinsella, Tackling Knife Crime Together: A Review of Local Anti-Knife Crime Projects, looked at the issue of knife crime and organisations which attempt to prevent it. After speaking to a number of young people about negative media images, Ms Kinsella warned that:

[b]y endlessly printing or showing stories about violent crime, young people can become fooled into thinking it is glamorous, or it is the only way to get their name known to the world, and so will not worry about the consequences of being caught.

If this prediction proves correct, then it suggests that even the threat of an automatic prison sentence would not serve as a successful deterrent to young people.

Is imprisonment the answer?

The Youth Justice Board, in its 2009 survey, found that ‘almost a quarter of young people in mainstream education reported carrying a knife in the last year’. Of these, 24 per cent said that they carried it for protection. The number of young people in Pupil Referral Units who reported carrying a knife was much higher at 54 per cent. Although up-to-date figures are hard to find, from various analyses and reports on knife crime, it seems fair to say that the numbers of young people currently carrying knives is likely to be high. As such, if a ‘legal assumption’ which leads to imprisonment for such an offence is introduced, then this could lead to an untenable increase in the number of people entering the prison system.

This is not an insignificant problem when one considers the current overpopulation of our prisons. The Howard League for Penal Reform reported that, as of the 15 March 2013, the number of people being held above the Certified Normal Accommodation (CNA) level was 4,617. The CNA is the prison’s own measure of the number of prisoners which can be held safely, with a decent standard of accommodation. A Prison Reform Trust brief found that ‘[a]t the end of September 2012, 81 of the 131 prisons in England and Wales were overcrowded’. Speaking in response to proposals regarding prison closures earlier in the year, Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, argued that:

[p]rison is an important place of last resort for serious and violent offenders and not, as it has become, a place to dump people who are mentally ill, those with learning disabilities, addicts and vulnerable women and children.

Out of all the children (aged 10–17) who were released in 2010, a staggering 71 per cent reoffended within a year.

This is a serious critique, given the prevalence of mental health problems which the Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile found amongst people in prison. The report’s findings on the occurrence of reoffending are also important to note. The report showed that 47.5 per cent of adults are reconvicted within one year of their release from prison, and this figure increases for those serving short sentences. Even more shocking are the recidivism rates for children and young people. The report showed that out of all the young people (aged 18–20) who were released in 2008, 58 per cent reoffended within one year. Out of all the children (aged 10–17) who were released in 2010, a staggering 71 per cent reoffended within a year.

In light of such statistics, it seems rash and inappropriate to attempt to push through an assumption which could see even more people, including children and young people, being incarcerated in the prison system. Brooke Kinsella also raised the issue of reoffending in her report, noting that many young people who re-enter society after completion of their sentence ‘still really struggle to begin any kind of decent life’.

Aside from the shocking figures on recidivism, one must also consider another key tenet of any criminal justice system: deterrence. Various reports and studies have found that prison fails to deter people from committing crimes. If James Morris’ ‘legal assumption’ did make its way into a law which leads to automatic custodial sentencing, it is questionable whether this would improve the problem by simply increasing the number of people being sent to prison. When we consider the likelihood of a person being released from prison reoffending, we see that the harm caused by tougher sentences for knife possession could be very great indeed.

How can we tackle knife crime effectively?

It is not uncommon, in the wake of tragedies like the recent case of Christina Edkins, for politicians to pledge tougher responses to crime. Indeed, John Harding and Sophie Wood, in a blog for law firm Kingsley Napley, pointed out that ‘talking tough on crime is easy and popular with voters’. However, as we have seen, an assumption that leads to custodial sentences, while perhaps appeasing the media and those that believe our crime rates are frighteningly high, may do very little to actually tackle the problem of knife crime.

Although overall crime figures are falling and, although the media can distort our perception of crime, it is true that knife crime is a serious issue in our society. If the prison system is failing to provide an adequate solution, then what options do we have to tackle this problem? In a report for the Kiyan Prince Foundation, Mark Walsh argued that:

[w]hile the government has focused on imprisonment as a strategic response and one cannot dispute the need for this approach in certain instances, given its questionable effectiveness, it cannot be the primary response of the justice system.

Brooke Kinsella reported that:

almost every project and youth worker I spoke to said we need to start intervening earlier if we are to prevent the current culture and behavioural patterns continuing into the next generation.

Although she pointed out the valuable work being done by many projects, she found that most of these target teenagers over the age of 13. She argues that the majority of friendships are formed in the first year of secondary school, which means that we should be reaching out and educating children from a much earlier age.

If the prison system is failing to provide an adequate solution, then what options do we have to tackle this problem?

Going hand-in-hand with this is the need for schools to take a more proactive approach in educating their pupils on the dangers of knife crime. Ms Kinsella reported that many schools are wary of providing such an education, lest it be seen as a sign that the school and local area have a problem with knives. However, she rightly argues that:

it is better for a school to take a chance and bring in a knife awareness project as a prevention measure to make young people aware of the problems and how to avoid being caught up in them, than to bring in a project once the problem has already started by which time people may have been hurt.

Aside from focusing on prevention, which could stop this problem carrying on into future generations, the way that we deal with offenders must also be addressed. The current sentencing trends illustrate the popularity of community sentences amongst the judiciary as responses to knife possession crimes, and many arguments have been made that such sentences reduce reoffending rates more than custodial sentences. In particular, the Howard League in its fact sheet on community sentences argued that ‘reconviction rates for those serving community sentences are 14 per cent lower than for those serving time in jail’. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Prison Reform Trust report found that:

court ordered community sentences are more effective (by 8 percentage points) at reducing one-year reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than 12 months for similar offenders.

However, a report by the Centre for Crime Prevention found that a majority of people who were given immediate custodial sentences in the year ending June 2012 had had at least one previous community sentence. While this does not illustrate that all people who serve community sentences do later reoffend, this does illustrate the prevalence of recidivism both amongst those receiving custodial sentences and those receiving community sentences. There is clearly a serious need to assist all offenders, regardless of the type of sentence they receive, in finding positive ways to live their lives without turning to criminality.

The European Forum for Urban Security (EFUS) worked with five European cities to address ways to tackle reoffending, which it found was a serious problem across the continent. The project put together various recommendations and guidelines to train local organisations in preventing reoffending. It found that:

[a] coordinated reoffending prevention scheme must take into account the individual needs of prisoners, and encompass housing and employment, vocational training, access to health care — in particular if there are drug issues — family and social relationships, and other important factors like the management of personal finances.

…there is clearly a serious need to assist all offenders, regardless of the type of sentence they receive, in finding positive ways to live their lives

Such a scheme would involve substantial thought, time and money. However, the Howard League found that sending a person to prison for just one year costs £37,500. They estimated that if the prison population was reduced by 5 per cent, a saving of £120 million could be made. The Ministry of Justice, however, in its 2010—11 report, found that the average cost per prisoner was £26,978. In light of these figures, it is certainly arguable that money should be directed not towards sending more people to prison, but on addressing the problems at the heart of knife crime and ensuring that offenders, and those at risk of offending, have the opportunity to lead a normal crime-free life. Brooke Kinsella shared this sentiment, arguing that ‘if we are to try to reduce reoffending, I believe we must equip offenders with better tools and support’.

Conclusion

It is clear that the problem of knife crime cannot be solved overnight. What is crucial in the fight against this problem, however, is that the focus be on education and prevention. Where offences have already been committed, then the aim should be to ensure that reoffending does not occur. It is important that tragic cases like that of Christina Edkins are not used by politicians to force through tougher sentencing rules which would see more people entering an overcrowded prison system. Rather than effectively tackling knife crime, this approach would serve only to exacerbate what is already a serious problem in our society.

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