This week the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke announced automatic jail terms for 16 and 17 year-olds found guilty of knife offences. In fairness to Mr Clarke, this seems to be a result of pressure from within his own party as opposed to his own instincts.
I have to wonder, does anyone really believe that “prison works” anymore? Do even the Tories think it works? The effectiveness of prison sentences has been proven to be practically non-existent time and time again. You don’t have to look far to find evidence of this but just as an example, a study by the Prison Reform Trust found that 72% of 10 – 17 year olds released from custody in 2009 had reoffended within a year. If you were the victim of a knife-enabled offence, you may feel safe for the period which the perpetrator was incarcerated, but is that temporary feeling of safety worth the knowledge that there is a 72% chance of that person reoffending within a year of release?
The Tories know this, their actions are populist in the face of pressure over Europe, pure and simple.
There are many reasons why young people carry knives. Granted, some carry them with the intention of using them, these young people are dangerous and a custodial sentence is the only option. Others carry a weapon as a fashion accessory, this is ignorance rather than malice. Some carry a knife because they are genuinely scared that they may be confronted aggressively, mistakenly believing they are safer carrying a knife. Others may be coerced into carrying a knife for an older person, so that person takes no risk of getting caught themselves, however can summon the implement when required.
Scared. Coercion. Let’s just pause on these two explanations for some knife offences. These could happen to any one of our children and in a moment of madness, they may pick up a knife as they leave the house. Under these circumstances do we really want mandatory jail terms for knife offences? Make no mistake, at 16 or 17, little Jimmy won’t be going to a well-resourced Secure Training Unit, he’ll be going to YOI Feltham, Cookham Wood or Ashfield. These are not places for the faint-hearted.
The frustrating thing is that there are community-based projects operating that are proven to work (and not in the “prison works” way, they really do work). The Youth Offending Service (YOS) which I recently left has been and is operating a very successful Knife Crime Prevention Programme (KCPP). It is a seven-session programme with up to 15 young people attending each. The KCPP is facilitated by a YOS Officer and a Police Officer and each session is also attended by guests with specialist knowledge of knife crime including; ex-offenders, Operation Trident, CO19 Police Armed Response Unit, Barristers, Paramedics and the mother of a young person who died as a result of knife crime (who is possibly one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met). The reoffending rate for those who attend the programme, is very low indeed.
It would take little imagination and a tiny amount of money (compared with the cost of imprisonment) to broaden out projects such as this to schools and young people at risk of offending. It requires a very small amount of education to make young people realise that they place themselves in more danger by carrying a knife. I guess this is a bit too much to expect when your back-benchers are screaming “lock them up!”