An 18-year-old girl stabbed in the back in the West Midlands; three people stabbed at a party in Borough; a teenage boy left fighting for his life in New Cross; a police officer attacked with a machete in Leyton – and that is just in the past week alone.
Over the past five years offences involving knives have soared by 74 per cent, from 25,600 in 2013/14 to 44,500 in 2018. Knife offences last year included 252 homicides and 368 attempted murders. Knives were used in more than 400 rapes in the year and 150 other sexual assaults. Those of us who prosecute and defend in cases of serious violence are weary of the unending cycle of misery that such crimes bring about; the heart-breaking scene of baffled parents, of young defendants taking their seats in a crowded Old Bailey courtroom yards away from the disconsolate broken parents of equally young victims.
Stabbings have become a daily staple of news bulletins, so banal that sometimes they do not even attract comment. When they do, however, two subjects always seen to be brought up: police numbers and the practice of stop and search. Both can reasonably be cited as contributory causes to the current epidemic of knife crime. Police numbers have fallen by 20,000 over the past decade, while a downwards trend in knife crime was reversed almost the moment in 2014 when Theresa May, then Home Secretary, changed the rules making it more difficult for police to carry out stop and search. But one important factor tends to be left out of the debate: what actually happens to people who are caught carrying knives. While we might imagine that those caught loitering with knives are automatically sent to jail, in many cases depressingly little happens to them.
You have to ask yourself why is it that knife crime has risen over the past decade while firearms offences have been fairly flat. If it was just a case of police numbers or stop and search you might expect gun crime to have risen too. But there is a big difference in how firearms offences and knife offences are treated.
Notionally, there has been a sharp increase in the severity of sentences handed out to knife criminals over the past decade. According to the Ministry of Justice, the percentage who are given an immediate custodial sentence has risen from 20 per cent to 37 per cent and the percentage given a caution has fallen from 30 per cent to 11 per cent. Yet there has also been a sharp fall in the number of knife criminals being handled by the criminal justice system, which is down from 25,103 in 2009 to 21,484 in 2018 – suggesting that fewer people are getting as far as a caution.
If we really want to tackle knife crime there is another way – through mandatory custodial sentences for those caught carrying a knife without good reason. Currently, offences of possessing knives and other bladed articles carry sentences that are potentially imprisonable but the court will usually have the discretion to pass a sentence of imprisonment or not. The main offences relating to the carrying of knives are Possession of an Offensive Weapon and Possessing a Bladed Article, both of which have maximum sentences of four years.
The courts, however, are obliged to follow sentencing guidelines published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council. These suggest a number of aggravating and mitigating features that may apply in a particular case, and will raise an offence above the threshold for imprisonment or lower it below it. In addition, all sentences of two years length or below can be suspended. In reality, this means the court passing sentence will invariably have a wide discretion about whether to pass a custodial sentence or not for almost all offences for carrying knives. When this is combined with the natural inclination to avoid imprisoning young people, particularly for first offences, the result is that it is quite likely that a defendant will not actually go to prison for an offence of merely possessing a knife.
The courts will of course consider it an aggravating factor when a knife is actually used in a crime, but this is to look at the situation after the event. Bearing in mind the latent capacity for people carrying knives to end up using them, whether planned or not, the best way to prevent knife crime is to make sure the mere possession of a knife on the streets comes with a heavy responsibility. Simply put, young people should know that if you are caught carrying a knife, without good reason or reasonable excuse for doing so, you will go to prison.
This is the approach to sentencing that already applies to offences of possession of some categories of firearms which carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years’ imprisonment. 16 and 17-year-olds are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 years for such offences. The court has a discretion to deviate from the mandatory sentence, but only where there are exceptional circumstances to do so. The consequences of this are well known; if you are caught carrying a firearm, you will go to jail. Shootings are not uncommon in this country but, thankfully and significantly, no one is currently talking about an epidemic of gun crime.
Isn’t it time to take the same bold approach with knife crime, to make possession carry a mandatory (non-suspendable) sentence of two years’ imprisonment (reduced to one year for 16 and 17-year-olds)? Indeed, there are some kinds of knives like zombie knives and machetes that are so dangerous that higher mandatory sentences of perhaps three years’ imprisonment should be considered.
Such mandatory sentences would send out a strong clear message that possession of a knife carries serious consequences. This may discourage young people, many of whom have come to think of knives as almost a kind of rebellious fashion statement. It would inevitably make some think twice about carrying a knife and this will save lives.
Of course, there is a downside to this. There will inevitably be some tough cases where young people are jailed for first offences. Some too will face all the problems that come with being exposed to a prison environment at any early age. To a degree this will be mitigated in that, in some cases, exceptional circumstances will apply that will allow a court to reduce a sentence. Some may ask how our already-stretched prisons would cope with additional numbers but the whole point is that this would act as a deterrent to offending. There is no reason why prison numbers should increase at all.
But, such a move also has the capacity to transform knife culture in this country. The logic is simple and undeniable: if you want to reduce knife crime, make it really tough to carry a knife.
Kevin Dent QC prosecutes and defends in cases of serious crime from his chambers at 5 St Andrews Hill.