MPs’ knee-jerk response to knife possession won’t work

Mandatory prison sentences are not an appropriate, proportionate or effective response to the problem of knife possession.

Mandatory prison sentences are not an appropriate, proportionate or effective response to the problem of knife possession

With a general election approaching, the past few months have seen signs of a heightened temptation for politicians to indulge in knee-jerk reactions which do nothing to promote justice or public safety.

Punitive new prison rules, uncosted proposals to end automatic early release and unnecessary restrictions on release on temporary licence are just some recent examples of the priority politicians have given to media headlines over evidence-based policy in the run up to polling day.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill currently before Parliament contains a raft of measures which will increase prison numbers and place pressure on resources at a time when the prison population is rising and budgets are being slashed.

Now according to reports, Conservative and Labour backbenchers are being instructed by their party leaderships to support the Conservative MP Nick de Bois’s amendments to the bill, due to be debated on Tuesday, to introduce mandatory jail sentences for knife possession for children as young as 16.

Despite the Liberal Democrat’s opposition to the proposals, the combined forces of Conservative and Labour MPs mean the amendments stand a good chance of becoming law, although the proposals are likely to face resistance in the House of Lords along with many other provisions of the bill.

At a time when rates of child and adult convictions for knife possession are falling along with levels of youth crime and the numbers of children in custody, it is difficult to understand why politicians would want to support measures which will lead to children and young people being exposed to more serious offenders in prison.

Knife crime is a serious problem in some inner-city communities but the term covers a wide-range of offences from those involving threat or injury to the much less serious offence of possession. Research shows that the majority of children and young people who carry knives do so out of fear and for protection; not to threaten or injure others. A Home Office study found that 85 per cent of young people who report carrying a knife claim to have done so for protection and just 4 per cent have used it to threaten someone, 1 per cent to injure someone.

Mandatory prison sentences are not an appropriate, proportionate or effective response to the problem of knife possession. Custodial sentences have the worst outcomes of all the sentencing options available, with nearly 70 per cent of children and 58 per cent of young people aged 18-20 reconvicted within a year of release.

Prison can be particularly damaging for children and young people who are still growing and maturing and need supervision and support to grow out of trouble. The Centre for Social Justice has said:

“An increase in the number of people imprisoned for knife possession does not warrant celebration, particularly when we know that the majority of young people carry knives out of fear and … custody exposes young people to more hardened criminals.”

The proposals are likely to have a disproportionate impact on black people who are already over-represented in the child and adult prison population. This is because a significant proportion of knife possession offences are likely to be detected through stop and search and black people are up to seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.

As a result, knife possession has more chance of being detected. In 2012/13, 21 per cent of young people in custody were from a black ethnic background but made up just eight per cent of the overall Youth Offending Team caseload.

Despite claims that mandatory prison sentences would deter children and young people from carrying knives, there is little evidence to support this. The 2001 Halliday report on sentencing found no evidence to suggest there was a link between differences in sentence severity and deterrence effects. It concluded that “it is the prospect of getting caught that has deterrence value” rather than the nature of the sentence.

Young people who gave evidence to the 2009 Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into knife crime said that prison does not act as a deterrent because young people do not think about the consequences of their actions.

Mandatory sentences remove judicial discretion which is vital to ensure an appropriate and effective response to offending by children and young people. Previously, the Magistrates Association opposed proposals in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (2012) to introduce a mandatory prison sentence for 16 or 17-year-olds caught using a knife in a threatening manner.

John Bache, the then-chairman of the Magistrates Association Youth Courts Committee, said that there will always be “rare or exceptional circumstances” in which they are not appropriate and that, whatever the offence committed, youths lacked “the maturity of thought of adults and must be treated accordingly”.

In its report on knife crime, the Home Affairs Committee said it was “particularly concerned about the potential award of a mandatory custodial sentence to an individual who has been coerced into carrying a weapon for an older person”.

Sentencers already have the power to imprison children and young people for possessing a knife. The maximum penalty for an adult carrying a knife is four years in prison and a fine of £5,000. For under 18s, the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 doubled the maximum prison sentence available for knife possession in a public place from two to four years (mirroring the offence of possession in a school), and gave new powers to school staff to search children they believe may be in possession of offensive weapon, and prohibited the sale of knives to under-18s.

Official figures suggest that the courts are using these powers appropriately to deal with repeat offenders. Nearly nine out of ten of the total number of children convicted for knife possession had no previous conviction for the same offence (2,143 out of a total of 2,480).

Of those that did have previous convictions, a significant proportion received a custodial sentence and the likelihood of this increased the more previous convictions for knife possession a person had.

The trend is similar for adults, with 22 per cent of those with no previous conviction for knife possession receiving a custodial sentence; rising to 40 per cent for those with one previous conviction and 50 per cent for those with two previous convictions.

With the number of possession-related offences falling by 34 per cent for children and 23 per cent for adults over the past three years, the figures suggest that the existing legislative framework, coupled with effective knife crime prevention programmes and interventions, is working to deter people from committing knife possession offences.

Instead of imposing punitive and ineffective jail sentences, politicians should build upon programmes such as the Home Office’s Knife Crime Prevention Programme.

This seeks to ensure that young people are better informed about the law on knives; understand the dangers of knife crime and the often serious medical nature of wounds; and recognise the emotional impact on victims and their families, as well as on the perpetrator’s family and friends. An evaluation of the programme by the Youth Justice Board found that most youth offending team staff surveyed believed that the scheme was effective.

Locking up impressionable children and young people in overcrowded and under resourced prisons is the surest way to create the hardened criminals of tomorrow.

Mark Day is head of policy and communications at the Prison Reform Trust

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