Jack Straw announced last week that he wants to increase the minimum time in jail for anyone who commits murder with a knife from 15 to 25 years.
Straw made it clear that this was a direct response to the case of Ben Kinsella – a 16 year old teenager who was stabbed to death in London last year.
Kinsella’s murderers were given minimum sentences of 19 years – causing an outcry among tabloid journalists and pushing Straw to order a review into sentencing.
There are several problems with Straw’s approach.
Longer sentences make sense if you believe the aim of the criminal justice system is simply to punish wrongdoers and offer victims of crime a sense of retribution. Although if that is the case, why stop at 25 years?
Why is a victim’s pain worth 25 years and not 35 years, or 100 years?
But if the aim of crime policy is to reduce and prevent violence, or to rehabilitate offenders, then all the evidence shows that longer sentences do not work.
Locking up increasing numbers for longer fills the prisons and might help Labour look tough on crime, but it doesn’t address any of the reasons why people carry knives.
The overwhelming majority of people who carry knives say they do it for self defence, rather than setting out to attack someone.
It is hard to believe that anyone who has made that decision is going to be deterred by the difference between a 15 year life sentence and a 25 year one.
Locking up people, especially young people, for longer simply creates brutalised and habitual criminals locked into a cycle of poverty and social exclusion.
The story of Ben Kinsella’s murder is truly tragic – and the pain and grief of his family and friends must be terrible.
But we have to ask why the media have chosen his case above all others to argue for a crackdown.
There is a clue, perhaps, in the words of one of Kinsella’s friends, who told the BBC that the difference in this case was that, “quite a few of the teenagers who have been stabbed in London were troublemakers but Ben was so innocent”.
Ben’s murder was not typical of most knife murders in London. Unlike him, the vast majority of the 54 teenagers stabbed to death in the capital in 2007 and 2008 were black.
The media and politicians have relentlessly pursued the division between “innocent”, mostly white, victims such as Ben Kinsella, and the “troublemakers”. These are cast as black gang members, who are by implication partly to blame for their own death.
But murdered teenagers who had already been in trouble with the law, or involved in “gangs”, are victims too – in fact they are doubly so.
The lives of black teenagers from poor backgrounds would already have been marked by a society that excluded, stigmatised and impoverished them.
Even when the media do look sympathetically on the lives of gang members who have been subject to knife crime, their focus on the victim leads us away from asking the crucial questions – why do people carry knives and what lies behind these outbreaks of violence?
We already know some of the answers. People are more likely to carry knives if they have been the victim of crime, are scared of being attacked, have been excluded from school or are poor. And it is well documented that violence increases in less equal societies.
But Straw is not interested in these things because his agenda is not about crime reduction, but about pursuing policies that he thinks will play well with the public.
This runs throughout Labour’s approach. Straw spelt out his position a year ago – bizarrely choosing a speech at the Royal Society of Arts to argue for a more punitive prisons policy.
Attacking the “criminal justice lobby” for prioritising offenders over victims, he said it was time to reclaim the “unfashionable” language of punishment.
Then in January this year, the government created the post of Victims’ Champion for Sara Payne, whose daughter Sarah was murdered in 2000.
Payne has campaigned with the News of the World newspaper for parents to be able to access more information about the locations of sex offenders – a recipe for vigilante attacks. Earlier this month she released a report arguing that the government should “redefine” crime policy to focus on the victims.
Gordon Brown made a point of appearing with Sara Payne at a community centre in Merseyside last week – Labour ministers hope this will help them look tough.
But it is not just about pandering to the tabloids or to the right wing climate around crime that the government has helped to create.
It is part of a wider project of dividing the population into a hardworking “law-abiding majority” and a workshy criminal underclass that is beyond help and is the author of its own misfortune.
This is what drives Labour’s vicious scapegoating of disability benefit claimants, lone parents and young people. It is an agenda the Tories share.
And it involves a disgusting and patronising view of working class people as one-dimensional simpletons who support lynch mob-style justice and can’t be won to any wider view of society.