Socialist Worker

Myth and reality over knife crime

Chris Eades, the author of a new report into the levels and causes of knife crime, writes on why current government strategy is failing

Issue No. 2014

The start of the British summertime came with a spate of stabbing incidents, reported in lurid detail, and a national police knife amnesty intended to get these weapons off our streets.

As the number of reported incidents increased weekly, so too came promises from government ministers that tough action was on the way. The knife had taken centre stage and a firm response was needed.

But for a government so keen on “evidence based policy”, the proposals seemed to be based on nothing more than what the press reported - there was little information on the cause, nature and extent of the problem.

Evidence

Without this information, the proposed interventions stood little chance of success. As a result, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London decided to take a look at the issue drawing on all the available evidence.

What was established was that knife carrying among young people is increasingly common and motivated by feelings of fear and insecurity - young people aged 10–25 were twice as likely to carry knives if they had been the victim of a violent crime in the previous year.

This is more worrying still when considering the fact that children and young people experience rates of violent victimisation at least three to four times that of adults.

Generally, however, since 1995 the actual number of violent incidents involving a knife has being falling, although in certain types of violence - stranger violence and mugging - the previous year has seen an increase but still nothing close to 1995 levels.

As far as who was most likely to be a victim of knife crime, it comes as no surprise that it is the young, those living in poverty and black and minority ethnic communities who suffer most.

The homicide statistics alone bear this out. Despite the rise in the homicide rate that Britain has experienced over the last two and a half decades, the wealthiest 20 per cent of areas have actually witnessed the homicide rate fall.

Meanwhile, the homicide rate in the poorest tenth of areas in Britain rose by 39 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, by far the most common way in which people are murdered in the poorest areas in Britain is through being cut with a knife, or a broken glass or bottle.

In the wealthiest areas, cutting with knife or glass accounts for just over 30 percent of homicides and firearms account for 29 percent. Considering the much greater rate of homicide in the poorest areas, homicide by knife or glass/bottle accounts for the vast majority of these deaths.

As for what can be done, the government pushed the success of its amnesty and boasted of its plan to double the sentence length for knife possession. Both measures will have a negligible impact on knife crime.

Increasing sentence length is unlikely to work since it is fear of detection - a remote prospect for most knife-carriers - not fear of punishment that acts as a deterrent.

According to the government’s own figures, the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for firearm possession has done nothing to check the use of guns in crime.

Given that it is 14 to 21 year olds that are most likely to carry knives, this proposal will end up with more children in prison for longer.

The knife amnesty is even less likely to reduce the use of knives in crime. According to the Home Office, a total of 89,864 knives were handed in.

Assuming that there are approximately 22 million households in England and Wales, each possessing only a single kitchen knife, the amnesty has been successful in removing 0.0041 percent of knives that might be used in crimes.

Routinely

Whilst it is impossible to say who handed in these knives, it’s unlikely that those people who routinely carry a knife for protection or intend to use a knife in crime will be safely disposing of their knives in the bins provided at police stations.

Moreover, unlike guns, once a knife has been disposed of it merely takes a trip to the kitchen drawer to get another. As long as there is unsliced bread, opportunities for “knife crime” will exist.

Essentially, that is the real issue. 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.

Knives - like guns, baseball bats, screwdrivers and poison - make an expression of violence potentially more damaging or lethal, even if unintended to cause death, but ultimately, stabbings are not caused merely by the presence of a knife.

The bigger issues of income inequality and relative deprivation drive violent crime. Without addressing these issues, the knife will once again take centre stage.


What causes the knife crime and violence?

“Knife crime Soars By 73 Percent” ran the headline of the Daily Express after the publication of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) report on knife crime.

It warned that “many more troubled teenage boys will turn into knife wielding savages.”

The Express used the publication of the report to call for the government to be tougher on crime and for harsher sentences.

In fact the report is very critical of both existing and proposed punitive measures for tackling knife crime.

It argues that knife amnesties, stop and searches, and the threat of increased sentences are ineffectual and fail to examine the reasons why people carry knives. It says that government rhetoric “smacks of a knee-jerk legislative response.”

The report pulls together existing research into reasons why young people carry knives.

The figures show a big gap between the 28 percent of school students in mainstream education who say that they have carried a knife and the much smaller number, 3 percent, who say that they have actually used or threatened someone with a knife.

It points out that many young people carry knives because they feel insecure or afraid.

There have been increases in some forms of knife crime. These are indicative of a general increase in violence rather than a specific increase in knife usage.

Any serious strategy has to address causes of violence, which means addressing inequality, insecurity and social deprivation.

Esme Choonara

Chris Eades is policy and information officer at the centre for crime and justice studies, Kings College. The full report, “Knife Crime: Ineffective responses to a distracting problem?” can be found at www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/rel/ccjs


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Sat 19 Aug 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2014
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