The knife crime epidemic and the Criminal law


For those of us who follow the national media, the recent headlines may have become too familiar ‘Man in 20’s fatally stabbed’. The harrowing details that follow the headline will describe the events which led to yet another young person losing their life to knife-crime in the capital.

National debate has asked two key questions. Firstly, ‘how do we stop knife-crime?’ and secondly, ‘who is to blame for it?’.

In 2018 alone there were 134 homicides in London, up from the 116 in the year of 2017, stated to be the highest number of homicides recorded in the capital in the last decade. Sadly, within the first six hours of 2019 two people were fatally stabbed in separate incidents around the capital.

So who is to blame?

Many critics have blamed the cuts to police funding, video games with violent content, lack of male role models or out of school activities or community projects being available in the most socially disadvantaged areas to ‘give the youth somewhere to go’. Whilst others have blamed middle class recreational drug use for fuelling post code-gang wars due to the large amount of drug dealing in across smaller geographical areas, or the larger now famous county lines which some say prey upon the youth removed from mainstream education who attend Personal Referral Units. Regardless of who is to blame, the capital agrees that the rise in knife crime is of grave concern.

The Law

On the 1 June 2018 a new sentencing guideline was introduced by the Sentencing Council. It sought to both consolidate the law on the issues of knife-crime and ‘ensure that those offenders convicted of offences involving knifes or particularly dangerous weapons as well as those who repeatedly offend will receive the highest sentences’.

The new guideline applies to offences of:

  • Possession of an offensive weapon in a public place

  • Possession of an article with a blade/ point in a public place

  • Possession of an offensive weapon on school premises

  • Possession of an article with a blade/ point on school premises

  • Unauthorised possession in prison of a knife or offensive weapon (adult guideline only)

  • Threatening with an offensive weapon in a public place

  • Threatening with an article with a blade/ point in a public place

  • Threatening with an article with a blade/ point on school premises

  • Threatening with an offensive weapon on school premises

The guideline applies to adults over the age of 18 and those under the age of 18.

The key development in the sentencing guidelines has been mandatory sentences:

  • Where an offender is convicted of a second (or further) bladed article/ offensive weapon offence the court must impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 6 months' imprisonment for an adult or 4 months' Detention and Training Order for a youth (under 18), unless satisfied that there are circumstances relating to the offence or the offender that make it unjust to do so in all of the circumstances.

  • Where an offender is convicted of threatening with a bladed article/ offensive weapon the court must impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 6 months' imprisonment for an adult or 4 months' Detention and Training Order for a youth (under 18), unless satisfied that there are circumstances relating to the offence or the offender that make it unjust to do so in all of the circumstances.

The guidelines therefore provide that those who use knives or highly dangerous weapons to threaten will receive the most severe sentences, in this case greater than a six month custodial sentence (for those over 18).

Whilst the guidelines ensures that in deciding in whether it is just to grant the mandatory sentence the court must consider

  • Strong personal mitigation

  • Whether there is a strong prospect of rehabilitation

  • Whether custody will result in significant impact on others

Conclusion

It is now very clear that the courts are taking offending of this nature very seriously, and arguably this should assist in acting as a deterrent to offending of this nature, but does it answer the remaining question, ‘how do we stop knife crime?’

Leading MP’s have debated this topic at great length within the last year. With some suggestions that punishing the youth for their involvement in knife crime, coupled with tougher sentences for such offenders, achieves only half the battle, particularly in light of the cuts to police funding, and the increase in large criminal drugs organisations.

The argument that these youth are resulting to violence as a means to ensure that they are able to carry out their roles as drug-runners at the bottom of the food chain for large organised criminal enterprises, still begs the question as to how the youth are protected from such exploitation generally.

Arguably, what may remain as an area for further exploration, is the reasons why and circumstances in which the youth who end up in the UK courts for knife related offending, who have also been victims of exploitation by criminal enterprises, were vulnerable to such exploitation in the first place.

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