Not a day passes without a story about gun and knife violence featuring in the news. Politicians and political parties believe they will win or lose power depending on how well the public think they will deal with the issue of crime.
Tory David Cameron talks of a “broken society”. Labour minister Tony McNulty says knife crime has become part of young people’s “collective DNA”.
The Metropolitan Police chief compares violent crime to the threat of terrorism, and London mayor Boris Johnson informs us there is “a culture of stabbing”.
The needless death of a young person is a terrible and emotive crime. But the impact is far greater today when young people have become the focus of so many of our insecurities.
Politicians often pay lip service to the fact that “fear of crime” is far more widespread than crime itself.
Their answer, however, is to try to calm public fears by staging high-profile law and order “crackdowns” that do little to alter anything and only confirm our worst fears.
New Labour’s repeated attempts to restrict access to knives is a pointless exercise and the mayor of London’s latest stunt – supporting the installation of hi-tech scanners known as “knife arches” at train stations – will stand as a physical symbol of an unsafe capital city.
MPs talk about longer prison sentences being a deterrent.
But we need only look back to see what longer prison sentences have achieved.
We imprison at a far greater rate – and we jail more children – than any other western European country.
But it’s not improving our society. It’s not stopping our children carrying guns and knives and killing each other.
None of the politicians really seek to understand what is happening, nor do they ask what
do those young men need – those who carry knives, those who really do fear for their lives, and those who have got themselves into a life of violence and crime.
What are we actually doing about communicating with young men and trying to understand their complex lives? What support can be offered to help eradicate their offending behaviour?
The number of young people who carry knives shows the human consequences of a society that allows so many of its youth to grow up without hope, while at the same time selling a consumer dream in which anyone can become rich and famous.
We alienate our youth in the media – an estimated 71 percent of press stories about young people are negative. Social exclusion is widespread and starts as early as nursery school.
The reality is that British society has failed far too many of our young people, and in particular Black young people.
The former prime minister Tony Blair located the problem within the black community, calling on us to mobilise and denounce gang culture – as if we haven’t been doing this for years.
The eradication of funding over the years has seen huge cuts in frontline work with young people.
Underfunded or unfunded community organisations are now doing the work that should be done by statutory bodies.
Some of our young lack a sense of identity and belonging, and have low aspirations.
They have no confidence in the police, and accuse them of being racist. So we should not be surprised that they find another way of ensuring their own safety – carrying knives or guns.
All these issues, and many more, have a part to play in the rise of violent knife and gun crime.
To challenge it we need a strategy that combats racism, but also challenges poverty, deprivation and structural inequality.
Communities need confidence and a real sense of partnership with statutory service providers, that meet their needs and treat them with respect.
Of major importance is the inclusion of the young men who find themselves caught between a life of poverty, alienation, self-destruction and despair.
We need cultural identity programmes and leadership programmes for young people, and parenting programmes that strengthen families and communities.
These will be far more effective than the heavy handed solution suggested by Gordon Brown.
A study by the Medical Research Council showed that the murder rate in Glasgow is nearly three times that of Scotland as a whole, and concluded that the high murder rate in the city is likely to be linked to deprivation.
So answers to what we can be done lie not only within the criminal justice system but must address the type of society that we have become.
As the criminologist and former prison governor David Wilson argues, “Instead of dreaming up new penalties for carrying knives, communities that want to be safe from them – or indeed guns for that matter – would be far better off investing in good schools, with well-paid and qualified teachers, and in ensuring that young people, especially young men, feel valued and included and have jobs and training equipping them to lead purposeful lives.”
To really address knife-related offending, we need a coherent strategy that recognises the deeper structural causes of inequality, poverty and social disaffection.
A strategy that innovates and enables young people to be key drivers in the process of change.