12 May 2011

‘Jail is not a deterrent’ in preventing knife crime

As another teenager is stabbed to death, experts in violence amongst young men tell Channel 4 News that the authorities are taking the wrong approach in dealing with knife crime.

On Wednesday, a 15-year-old boy was stabbed to death in Camberwell, south London. His death was the latest in a string of killings across Britain this year.

In London alone, five teenagers have died from stab wounds this year, including two other 15-year-olds.

Last month, it was revealed that almost 4,000 teenagers were treated for knife injuries in English hospitals in the past five years and in 2010/11, more than 80 of them were under 14.

Figures held by the Ministry of Justice revealed that an average of five under-18s per day are found guilty of carrying knives by the courts – and in the past decade, the number of 12-year-olds convicted of “having an article with blade or point” in a public place doubled, while the number of 11-year-olds convicted has risen four-fold.


But Patrick Regan, CEO of XLP, a charity which helps kids escape from gangs, told Channel 4 News that the debate over jail time for knife killers was not the main issue surrounding knife crime.

“For sure, jail is not a deterrent for young people, but the jails are full, so increasing prison terms is a moot point,” he said. “We need intervention and engagement, not just enforcement by police and the law. And we need to do that at an earlier stage than we currently are.

“63 per cent of kids whose fathers are violent criminals go on to commit violent crimes, so we know where to find them at an early stage.”

He said the government spent five times more on sending teenagers to jail – and keeping them there – than on preventive projects.

“At £165,000 to keep a teenager in jail for a year, it’s in the government’s financial best interests to invest more in prevention,” he added.

Brooke Kinsella campaigns against knife crime with David Cameron, April 2010 (Reuters)

Last December, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke published a Green Paper in which he proposed scrapping minimum tariffs for knife killers.

And in February, the Home Secretary Theresa May promised more than £18 million to tackle crimes involving knives, guns and gangs over the next two years.

The funding announcement came after Brooke Kinsella, whose 16-year-old brother Ben was stabbed to death in 2008, advised the Home Office on the best ways to tackle the issue.

The financial boost will be distributed among a host of anti-knife and gun charities, but will be spread thinly because of the nature of dealing with youths and gang members – turning young people’s lives around must be done on a case-by-case basis.

Marek Palasinski from Lancaster University, who recently published the report “Tackling knife violence: young men view things differently” (BMJ), said that young men who carry knives do so because they view it as a necessary response to potential threats and to the lack of protection provided by authorities.

Mr Palasinski said that although attempts to tackle knife crime are working in general, his findings suggest other factors that require attention in order to prevent injury.

A short prison sentence is seen as trivial – a badge of honour Marek Palasinski, Lancaster University

He said that preventing knife injuries: “must involve promoting recognition of the low controllability and unpredictability of knives, demonstrating to young men that knives actually increase, rather than decrease, personal risk.”

His study also found that young men who do not carry knives were viewed as irresponsible and thus deserving of any violence they experience.

Mr Palasinski added that young men he studied considered the consequences of being convicted of knife related violence – a short time in prison – as relatively trivial.

“It is almost seen as something of a badge of honour without giving away too much of their lives,” he said.

He concluded that this would suggest that longer imprisonments for knife-related convictions is as important as increased policing of knife-carrying.

The teenagers that XLP works with have created a website to increase awareness about gangs and to offer advice to those currently in gangs but too scared to leave. Go to www.fightingchance.me