According to recent press, between 2014 and 2015 the Office of National Statistics recorded that possession of knife offences increased by 10%, sexual assaults with knives by 28%, and knife assaults by 13%. These figures spurred the Metropolitan Police to launch Operation Sceptre, a campaign to combat knife crime through tactics ranging from outreach programmes and knife amnesties to increased patrols and weapon sweeps. There is no official definition of ‘knife crime’ but the term broadly encompasses any offence involving a knife regardless of whether it was used to inflict harm. This week saw a series of initiatives against such crime as part of the ongoing campaign of Operation Sceptre, including the use of the hashtag, #StopKnifeCrime.
The immediate question is what is the reason for increasing knife crime? The first explanation given by representatives of Scotland Yard last year was that our ‘society is changing’, leading to an ‘increase in violence generally’ and an attitude among ‘some groups of young people’ that ‘life is cheap.’ Many would be disappointed by this vague and somewhat unfounded argument. Blaming increased crime on the exceptional violence of today’s youth is as groundless an argument now as it always has been.
Thankfully, the police did not just blame young people. Some blame was attributed to the dark web for enabling the purchase of knives without checks on the buyer. The reining in of stop and search powers was also blamed for allowing more knives to go undetected. The police even conceded that the increase might be illusory and merely the result of improved recording of knife crimes. The simple fact is that there is no clear explanation for increasing knife crime, and sweeping generalisations about the source of the problem do not assist our understanding or inform the policy framework.
This lack of understanding has not prevented the passage of legislation intended to address the problem by dealing harshly with those convicted of knife crimes. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 established that a four-month Detention and Training Order should be the minimum sentence for 16 and 17 year olds who receive a second conviction for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. The Court does, however, retain discretion not to impose the mandatory sentence if doing so would be ‘unjust’. Also, new sentencing guidelines coming into force in April will place renewed emphasis on the seriousness of robberies involving knives and other offensive weapons.
The threat of harsh sentences combined with initiatives like Operation Sceptre will hopefully staunch the rise of knife crime. It does, however, remain to be seen whether the campaign will have any more than a passing impact. It seems more likely that a lasting solution to knife crime will elude the police and Government until a better understanding of its cause can be found.