Timothy Kiely, Criminal Barrister, reveals the working reality of the UK approach to knife crime

November 13, 2019

[Published – Nov 2019 – Open Access Goverment]
The ‘public health’ approach to crime reduction runs counter to many prevailing narratives about how crime, and especially violent crime, arises in society, and how it should be addressed. The idea is to treat crime as if it were a disease, and to therefore approach it as one would an epidemic or other public health crisis: attempt to treat those already ‘infected’, whilst also inoculating as much of the wider public as possible.

When we approach violent crime, its advocates argue, we have a large body of data on the known risk-factors: addiction; poor or absent parenting; housing vulnerability; exclusion from school or other parts of the community. Rather than a punitive approach which treats crime as the bad choices of individual actors, a more effective approach would involve treating these factors, and providing directed assistance to those most affected by them.

The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit

It was with this in mind that Police Scotland established their own Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) in 2005 to deal with violent crime in Glasgow. Its remit was to liaise with different agencies and stakeholders to tackle all the factors which contribute to violent crime.

This involved liaising with Education Scotland, Social services and a number of others to offer appropriate counselling to those involved in serious violence, and a range of interventions designed to ‘break the cycle’ of risk. For example, the ‘Navigator’ programme invited staff at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary to provide special support those entering hospitals with injuries inflicted by partners or gang members.

The approach was so successful that in 2006 its remit was expanded nationwide. Since 2007 homicides in Scotland, half of which involve a sharp instrument, have fallen by 47%. In 2017 nobody under 20 was killed by a sharp instrument at all. Recently the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, established a VRU for London.

The government’s own ‘Serious Violence Strategy’, published in 2018, describes its focus as being on ‘early intervention and prevention’, and the Home Secretary’s announcement in June of releasing £35 million to 18 local Police and Crime Commissioners to set up their own VRUs seems to recognise the good they can do.

Although the establishment of the London VRU was welcomed by its Scottish founders, it remains to be seen whether their approach might be in tension with some existing strategies based on the perceived need for ‘toughness’. In particular, the increased use of stop and search powers by the Metropolitan Police is, some campaigners argue, in conflict with the ‘public health’ approach, since it tends disproportionately to affect young men of colour and tends to alienate the police from the very communities which they then need to protect and whose trust they must have if the approach is to work.

Does the Knife Crime Prevention Order work?

Additionally, as of 2019, we have seen the creation of a new ancillary disposal, the Knife Crime Prevention Order, following the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 and cast in the mould of the existing Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO). Although the professed aim of such an order, per the Home Office guidance, is to ‘divert’ offenders away from knife crime, it is worth pointing out that ‘diversion’ in criminal justice, and youth justice especially, more typically means ensuring that potential defendants are diverted away from the courts and criminal justice system in favour of more community-based, restorative options.

It is also worth asking how useful such orders are when they are made following conviction, and where breaching them will constitute a further criminal offence. Certainly in the author’s own sphere of practice it is frequently observed that many orders of this kind effectively set young offenders up to fail and guide them more readily into a pattern of further criminalisation, at least unless practitioners and advocates are diligent in ensuring that the orders proposed are proportionate and enforceable.

The courts have an important role to play in the proactive management of violent crime. In the terminology of the ‘public health’ approach, they are important overseers of ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ prevention (that is, the immediate responses to particular instances of violence, and the long-term responses of rehabilitation and further care). Arguably, particularly when dealing with young defendants, this concern comes already integrated into the legal framework; famously, section 37 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 describes the prevention of offending by children and young people as ‘the principal aim of the youth justice system’.

What about preventative measures?

A growing number of Judges are coming to appreciate that, in passing sentence, they must have regard to all of the factors which put a defendant at greater risk of reoffending, and which must be addressed if the cycle is to be broken. An approach that involves talking to as many stakeholders as possible, and in particular ensuring that Probation are in contact with agencies who can steer at-risk individuals away from a pattern of offending, is always to be recommended.

However, difficulties arise in situations where the criminal justice system more generally is under-resourced and demoralised. Although the Youth Justice Board has noted the value of early intervention and has resource hubs dedicated to compiling instances of best practice and organisations which can assist with preventing further offending, its November 2017 report ‘Prevention in Youth Justice’ noted that such helpful initiatives tend to be inconsistently available.

Generally, the good luck of being in an area where a good organisation is operating will make a sizeable difference to whether or not violent offenders receive the attention they need.

What comes next?

In the context of more general contraction of the resources available to the courts over the last 10 years, problems such as these may well become more acute. The evidence shows that a ‘public health’ approach to criminal justice can be highly effective at reducing violent crime and reoffending, and it is important that local and national stakeholders are beginning to recognise this. But it is also important that such measures are applied consistently and that, along with the wider social safety net, they are fully and properly resourced.

Timothy Kiely is a Criminal Barrister at Red Lion Chambers.