Tougher sentences for knife crime?

The UK government’s policies on tackling knife crime won’t effectively prevent such crimes from taking place, some anti-knife crime campaigners believe. Enforcing stricter prison sentences and strengthening police’s stop and search powers are the harsher measures that the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, has pledged to take against knife criminals.

The Conservative Manifesto states: “Today, almost four out of every five people found guilty of a knife crime escape jail. We have to send a serious, unambiguous message that carrying a knife is totally unacceptable, so we will make it clear that anyone convicted of a knife crime can expect to face a prison sentence. We will introduce mobile knife scanners on streets and public transport, and extend the length of custodial sentences that can be awarded in a magistrates’ Court from six to twelve months.”

Promising though it sounds, “I don’t think [the Conservatives’] policy of harsher sentences for knife crime offenders will change the status of knife crime much, especially for kids that are already in that kind of lifestyle. Kids that already carry knives and are capable of using them do not expect to be caught,” says Lee Carryl, the Citizenship and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Coordinator of Gladesmore Community School in Tottenham, London.

“It will, however, maybe stop people who are thinking about getting into that situation and who are thinking of starting to carry a knife,” Carryl says, who is the organiser of Value Life, the school’s student led anti knife and gun crime campaign.

Value Life first started in 2003 when a small group of students attended a conference led by Citizen Foundation, and since then has held marches, festivals, conferences, and produced documentaries and short films. According to Carryl, Gladesmore Community School does not have a particular problem with students involved in knife and gun crime but it is an issue they are familiar with due to its prevalence in Tottenham.

Aron Jervis, 22, the main editor of the government anti-knife crime campaign It Doesn’t Have to Happen, says that harsher sentencing will only be effective “if they actually do it because now it’s just not serious. No one that I know of and I’ve never read that someone has got the full sentence” of four years in prison if they have been caught carrying a knife.

It Doesn’t Have to Happen is still in the “purdah” period and Jervis does not know whether the Conservative Party will cut the campaign since they have stated that they will cut public spending. Launched in April 2008, the campaign is made up of a team of young people who have experienced or lived in an environment where knife crime is rife. When he was 17, Jervis himself was stabbed five times by an unknown attacker during a fight outside a party. It Doesn’t Have to Happen has since been behind TV adverts, posters and virals which urge young people to stop carrying knives.

He says that the new government might not see knife crime as a key agenda despite the Tories claiming to have stricter policies regarding knife crime than the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats.

“They think they might be able to spend their money on something better and get a different outcome,” says Jervis. He has heard that rumours have been spread in the home office that the campaign will be dropped. “With knife crime, they only see it as London, a bit of Manchester, a bit of Birmingham, but they don’t see it as a nationwide thing even though it happens all around the country.”

Former EastEnders actress, Brooke Kinsella, whose teenage brother, Ben, was stabbed to death in Islington, north London in 2008, backed the Conservatives during their campaigning prior to the elections. Despite previously being a Labour supporter, Kinsella felt that the Tories’ policies on knife crime were the toughest, and is quoted to have said: “Sadly, although I think [Labour] care, I don’t think they have done enough”.

The Liberal Democrats, whose leader Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister, state in their manifesto: “We will make hospitals share information with the police so they know where gun and knife crime is happening. The police can then target these ‘hot spots’ for stop and search to find these illegal weapons and destroy them.”

Both parties favour more effective stop-and-search by the police. On May 20th, the new government released the full coalition agreement, which includes only the above stated policy suggested by the Lib Dems. It seems that sentencing and prison policy are still a source of tension between the new partners. During the election, the Tories argued that knife criminals should expect to face a jail term, and opposed the Lib Dems’ proposition of prison sentences of less than six months. While the Liberal Democrats want to cancel the building of more prisons, the Conservatives want to redevelop the prison estate and halt early release.

Stop and Search: an effective tactic?

Both parties favour more effective stop-and-search by the police. Since May 2008, the Metropolitan Police have been carrying out Operation Blunt 2 whereby they tackle serious youth violence and confiscate deadly weapons such as knives and guns. The Met Police are targeting 13 London Boroughs and say that more than 4,000 knives have been recovered from April 2009 until March 2010 and more than 220,000 people have been stopped and searched.

In March, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was told by teenage schoolchildren in south London in a school conference that police tactics of stop and search were intrusive and that they felt targeted. A statement by the Met Police states: “We are targeting the places where intelligence indicates knife crime is prevalent and where young people are most concerned.”

“Police have a tough job policing their community, but their searching of young people for weapons is an issue in the way that they do it. There needs to be more sensitivity in dealing with young people,” says Carryl from Value Life.

Jervis agrees: “I don’t blame young people for feeling targeted. The stats show it anyway because if you’re from 15 to 21, and you’re a black boy, you’re 60% more likely to get stopped than if you’re white, or something like that. I don’t call it racism but it’s a perception of what people link to crime. That’s the perception of society and that’s what everyone thinks of, really, and it’s so hard to change it, so young people feel victimized.” Both Jervis and Carryl do argue, however, that young people need to recognize that the police are only doing their job.

So far the number of teenage killings this year stand at 11 whereas a total of 14 people were killed last year. Carryl says that these figures are a fraction of deaths in comparison to fatalities caused by car accidents or alcohol-related incidents. He stresses that it is a small minority of young people who carry knives and that there is a disproportionate fear among the public about knife crime, which does not match the reality of the situation.

Carryl says that this disproportionate fear is due to the media: “The media tends to use the youth as caricatures and they stereotype all young people as being feral hoodies.” He argues that 80 per cent of press stories about young people are demonising and negative, while their achievements are hardly ever reported.

“The media uses the scare tactic”, says Jervis. “They can highlight stories so that they seem like something new and people would think ‘ah they’re getting brave’.” This is how incidents such as the murder of schoolboy Sofyen Belamouadden in front of hundreds of commuters at Victoria tube station during the rush hour at the end of March can seem like indicators that London’s knife crime situation is worsening. Jervis and Carryl point out that such knife crimes carried out in public are not unheard of, but Jervis says that, for young people, they attempt to commit a crime that has never been done before.

Although statistics regarding knife crime are not accurate, the media also contributes in blowing the facts out of proportion. Jervis says that the media portrays most youths under the age of 21 as carrying a knife, which influences more young people to carry knives for protection: “I think in young people it plants the seed”.

Although Carryl believes young people that carry knives are a small subculture, Jervis’ experience with It Doesn’t Have to Happen causes him to believe that the majority of youths who carry knives are between the age of 15 and 18 “because it’s when young boys try to change to men and they have all these issues like identity and they don’t want to be looking like a little boy; it’s a macho type of thing”.

The most common reasons that young people carry knives, Carryl and Jervis believe, are to appear superior to others and to show off to friends, or for protection themselves. Since it is perceived that so many young people carry knives, others follow suit “just in case” they need to defend themselves. Statistics show that those who carry knives are more likely to be stabbed as their knife is often used against them.

This was the case for Edy, a Turkish man raised in London who prefers to remain anonymous, when he was walking home one evening after football training around three to four years ago. A black man stopped him outside a park in Stoke Newington, North London, and asked for a lighter, to which Edy answered that he did not smoke.

A poster by It Doesn't Have To Happen

“The man then changed his reaction and brought a knife out from his side pocket and said, ‘You better give me all you got or I’ll f***ing stab you’. As soon as he said that to me I forced the knife out of his hand and threatened him with it.

“He started to get physically and verbally violent even though I still had the knife. He was pushing me around and I ended up stabbing him in his thigh. I was a bit freaked out so I left the scene with the knife still jammed in his thigh and he was on the floor in agony.”

Edy, now 23, had never felt the need to carry a knife beforehand, but has since bought a hunting knife off a friend, although he does not carry it around with him. “It’s just for comfort. I wasn’t exactly looking to buy a knife until my friend mentioned his hunting knife and I remembered what had happened outside the park,” he explains.

So what should be done? It is a combination of methods, Jervis and Carryl believe. The Labour Party placed more emphasis on addressing the sources and motivations behind knife crime in an attempt to decrease it while they were in power. This should still be kept in mind as well as truly enforcing harsher punishments and consequences for those who commit knife crimes. At the moment Jervis says that the problem partially lies in the fact that “Young people get away with too many things now and I think society has collapsed to young people’s needs”.

Carryl acknowledges that the government needs to understand the motivations behind knife crime if it is not already aware of them but it also needs to send a clear message that knife criminals will be dealt with. Laws are not enforced consistently, which explains why many people are in and out of jail “because they’re not scared of it”.

Having successfully worked with young people all over Britain with It Doesn’t Have to Happen by influencing their values and putting them in contact with youth workers, Jervis stresses that “Prevention is better than cure, so it’s better to get to the kids when they are young. Also a lot of people who are involved in knife crime lack confidence, so I think social skills, lifestyle skills [and] confidence building at the ages of eight to twelve” are essential. This way young people won’t be so easily led down the path of gang culture and violence.

Getting students and youths involved in campaigns such as It Doesn’t Have to Happen and Value Life is also important, says Carryl, as “the driving ethos behind initiatives to combat knife and gun crime is that young people need to be engaged, whether they are directly or indirectly affected by it. It is important to make them civic-minded youths and agents of change.”

One person tells us about the consequences of carrying a knife.