According to the press and politicians Britain is awash with gangs of knife-carrying young people, who respect no law and will slash anyone who gets in their way.
Only a crackdown by police, leading to lengthy jail sentences, can put an end to this threat, they say.
Last week Gordon Brown called for “zero-tolerance” for knife crime and for police in inner-city “hot-spots” to prosecute, rather than caution, anyone found carrying knives.
While many are rightly concerned about what they perceive to be an increase in knife crime among young people – and particularly the recent spate of violent deaths among teenagers – Brown’s knee-jerk response offers no solutions.
Not only does it assume that all those who carry knives are intent on violence, rather than scared people hoping a blade will protect them.
It also rests on the ludicrous idea that locking up young people up in some of the most violent institutions in Britain can eventually see them emerge as rounded citizens.
Our politicians have only one answer to this problem because they cannot address the real reasons for violent crime – inequality, lack of life chances, drug dependency, and the resulting disaffection and alienation.
They know that attempts to address these issues often end up showing that society, rather than individuals, bear the main responsibility for crime.
So they continue with their failed policies of the past.
Home secretary Jacqui Smith is set to unveil a violent crime strategy next month including further police powers of stop and search.
These measures come on top of New Labour’s 2006 Violent Crime Reduction Act which doubled prison sentences for knife carrying and gave the police more powers to search children and young people, including increased powers to enter and search schools.
Smith offers nothing to those young people who feel marginalised and excluded from the mainstream of society, plans no improvement to youth facilities, and no route to decent jobs, housing and respect.
Report: ‘We need to move away from knee-jerk policy’
A recent report into knife crime by the centre for criminal justice studies (CCJS) at Kings College, London, raises serious questions about addressing knife crime through increasing police powers and prison sentences.
A key passage in the report states, “The knife is merely an implement used in crime.
“Without dealing with the underlying causes of violent crime, initiatives to reduce knife usage will have only a limited impact… stabbings are not caused merely by the presence of a knife.
“More essential is the context within which the resort to extreme acts of violence unfolds.
“The link between crime and deeper structural causes of inequality, poverty and social disaffection needs to be fully acknowledged and acted upon if the solutions are to be more than cosmetic and short term.
“At present the government seems to be acting in response to a problem without knowing the full nature and extent of that problem and while overlooking the fundamental causes.”
One of the authors of the report, Roger Grimshaw, is the director of research at the CCJS. He spoke to Socialist Worker about some of the report’s findings:
“We need to move away from knee-jerk punishments and look at better targeting of social policy, better education about conflict and weapons involving young people, and the design of safer environments.
“Without the social policy, the enforcement is likely to fail or make things worse.
“With regard to proposals to make prosecution of knife-related offences mandatory in ‘hot-spots’, we should avoid wholesale search operations that then lead to a new wave of criminalisation and fuel disaffection without reducing fear.
“Research suggests that there are risks in early criminalisation of young people.
“Labelling young people as offenders may mean there are more possibilities that some of those young people may go on to further levels of offending and so the problem escalates.
“It’s really important to involve young people in finding the solutions to knife crime.
“Their perspectives of when they might carry a knife or importantly what sort of knife, reveal what signs you are looking forward – signs of risk.
“We know that young people who have been victims of a crime are more likely to carry a knife. We know that children and young people, people in poor areas, members of minority ethnic groups are more likely to be at risk of offences involving knives.
“It is difficult to speculate about exactly how young people’s sense of wellbeing connects with these issues around knives – that’s exactly the sort of study that needs to be done.
“But there are certainly issues about the social opportunities in poor areas that have been highlighted by research into youth activities more generally.
“So we need environments with more positive activities where young people can feel safe and exercise more choice and control.
“More generally there is a social question about how people feel if there is no hope of access to decent jobs and a decent lifestyle.”
Scanners in schools are not the answer
Home secretary Jacqui Smith last weekend trailed plans to install airport-style metal detectors at schools to attempt to stop knife crime.
Politicians from all mainstream parties backed the plans and even teaching unions gave their approval.
Yet very few stabbings take place inside schools, despite the fact that increasing numbers of children of school age say they sometimes carry a knife.
There have been a number of high profile stabbings in the past year near schools, but the last major stabbing inside school premises was in 2003.
If violence occurs within a school there are many ready made weapons already on hand – merely stopping pupils bringing in their own knives would make little or no difference.
For example, the 13 year old girl injured at the gates of a school in Camberwell, south London, earlier this month was stabbed with a school-supplied craft knife.
High-level security measures also create a climate of tension. They establish a level of routine surveillance that will only increase the alienation, mistrust and resentment that many young people already feel.
The plans are part of the continued incursion of the police and criminal justice system into schools.
In 2006 police were given wide powers to enter schools and carry out searches. This has had no discernible impact on levels of violence or on numbers saying they carry a knife.
Smith has made clear that the plans are not intended to be used across all schools but instead to be targeted at “problem areas” and “problem schools” – and will further entrench the reputations that many poor and under‑resourced schools already have.
It will also reinforce the racial stereotypes that surround reporting of knife crime, as many of the schools in poor areas have a large numbers of black and minority ethnic pupils.
Smith says she hopes the scanners would decrease a gang culture in the playground and educate people about knives.
Does she really think the primary reason why a young person joins a gang is because they are able to smuggle a blade into their classroom?
For these reasons the NUT and other teaching unions are wrong to back the introduction of scanners.
Who carries knives?
In 2005 a survey carried out by MORI for the Youth Justice Board questioned over 5,000 people aged between 11 to 16 years old. They found that 32 percent of children said that they had carried a knife in the last 12 months (Compared to 30 percent in 2004, 29 percent in 2003 and 20 percent in 2002).
The 2005 Offending, Crime and Justice Survey interviewed around 5,000 people aged between ten and 25 years old in private households.
- percent had carried a knife in the last year
- carrying was most common among 16 to 17 year olds
- of those who carried a knife, 41 percent carried a penknife
- most of those carrying knives said they did so rarely
- more than eight out of ten (85 percent) of those who had carried a knife said they did so for protection.
- less than one in ten of those who had carried a knife had used it to threaten someone and 2 percent had used the knife to injure someone.
The most common method of killing is with a sharp instrument – but the object is not always knife.
- In 2005-6 there were 765 homicides, 212 (27.68 percent) with a sharp instrument.
- In 2004‑5 there were 820 homicides, 236 (28.78 percent) with sharp objects.
The figures have remained fairly stable for the last ten years.
Knife Crime: A review of evidence and policy is available at » www.crimeandjustice.org.uk