The deterrent effect

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Knife culture is so engrained in some communities that only more severe punishment will actually see it ‘stamped out’, argues Jesse Cook


For years I have mentored and provided guidance to young people from difficult backgrounds – including those who are well-behaved, to ensure they remain on track, and those who have fallen into trouble, or gang culture, or are at risk of doing so. I am passionate about people and everybody having the opportunity to succeed, especially youngsters, and I have long been an advocate of offender rehabilitation and second chances. So you may read this and wonder why I’m calling for tougher measures where knife crime is concerned. I don’t take joy in doing so but realistically I believe it’s the only solution. Drastic action must be taken to get this epidemic under control.

Consider this scenario

Twelve years ago, four friends and I had just got off the train in South London and were walking along a main road when we were suddenly set upon by the police. Mob handed, they aggressively pulled up alongside us in multiple cars and vans. ‘Don’t run, the dogs will bring you down!’ I distinctly remember one officer barking at us, as he hopped out of his vehicle and onto the kerb to confront us. We looked at each other, baffled as to what was going on. ‘There’s been a spate of robberies by black lads with weapons,’ another officer explained. That instantly got some of my friends’ backs up. I tried to explain to the officers, who had now surrounded us, that we had just returned to the area from a sixth form open evening and knew nothing about the alleged robberies. Rude and rough, they searched all five of us. They didn’t find a single weapon between us, but that wasn’t enough to stop one officer declaring, ‘You’re all getting nicked!’ What made the experience even more bizarre is that as we were getting searched, another black youth came running across the road towards us. He was out of breath and his jumper was ripped. He was pointing towards a side road shouting something about some guys trying to rob him. The police laughed off his claims and he too was arrested. Neither me nor my friends even knew who he was. We were 15 and 16 years old and this was our first experience with the police. We were taken into custody, from which we were released after 22 hours, with No Further Action being taken against us. This is the kind of scenario that epitomises why the police have such a fractious relationship with certain communities.

Is stop and search part of the solution?

I fully appreciate that the police have an extremely difficult job to do. However, I use the above example to highlight the fact that more random stop and search is not the answer to the knife crime epidemic, as it will only aggravate and further alienate certain communities. It is no secret that, at the moment, knife crime is most rampant within the Afro-Caribbean community, but we must not forget that it does not discriminate and affects all communities. I know lots of white people who are from just as socially disadvantaged backgrounds as many of their BAME peers who have also sadly been caught up in knife crime.

Stop and search can form part of the solution, but it is how it is used that is vital – it needs to be more tactical and intelligence led. However, in my view, the answer to the problem lies with what happens after an individual is caught in possession of a knife. The sentences being passed by the courts just aren’t severe enough to send the message that needs to be sent to those that carry knives. There are calls for more to be done to educate children about the dangers from an earlier age, for more investment in youth services and activities for youngsters to do in their local areas; these are valid points, but the truth is knife culture is so engrained in some communities that only more severe punishment will actually see it ‘stamped out’. I don’t use the phrase ‘stamped out’ lightly; this is exactly what needs to happen – it must be stamped out.

Getting the message right

Recently, a well-known London gang member/rapper in his 20s, some of whose YouTube videos get millions of views was caught in possession of a knife and prosecuted. The Metropolitan Police proudly posted news of it on their website, using both his real name and his ‘street name’ alongside an image of him and the Rambo-style knife he was caught with. That’s all well and good, but the problem is here: he only received a sentence of six months’ imprisonment. What kind of message does that send out to people who carry a knife? The individual in question will have been released from prison after just three months and be free to continue promoting gang and knife culture to impressionable young minds.

"The well-known London gang member/rapper… only received a sentence of six months’ imprisonment. What kind of message does that send out to people who carry a knife?"

When you speak to most young people who carry knives, they do so out of fear; they fear others are carrying knives, so they carry one too. There is an ‘everyone else is doing it, so I may as well’ mentality. The only way we will see a turnaround in knife crime is if there is a sizeable shift in the balance of fear amongst our young people, from fear of ‘the streets’ to fear of the law instead. Many fear the potential consequences of not carrying a knife, but most do not fear the consequences of being caught with one by the authorities. Therefore, sentences that will act as a deterrent need to be introduced; sentences that create a respect for or at least a fear of the law, which will leave people in no doubt about the serious consequences they will face.

The well-known London gang member/rapper… only received a sentence of six months’ imprisonment. What kind of message does that send out to people who carry a knife?

On a level with firearms

As with most criminal offences, there are a range of sentencing options available to the courts where knife possession is concerned. These include referral orders (ROs) and detention and training orders for youths. However, the reality is if a youth is caught in possession of a knife and sentenced to an RO, they are likely to continue to carry a knife. What if that same youth then goes on to stab someone causing serious injury or death as is often the case? The authorities are failing in their duty to protect the public. Knives end more lives in England than firearms, so at the very least sentences should be brought into line with firearms sentences to reflect the potentially fatal consequences of having a knife in public.

I was recently discussing the problem with a close friend who has worked with youths in one of London’s most deprived boroughs for 20 years. When I initially stated that harsher sentences were the solution he staunchly disagreed, responding that they would have no effect. But as we delved deeper into conversation he started to agree with me and suggest an even more extreme approach. My original suggestion was that if someone is caught in possession of a knife they should be sentenced to a minimum of three or five years’ imprisonment and spend the whole term in prison. My friend’s eventual position was that if we really wanted to stamp out the problem, anyone caught carrying a knife should ‘get 30 years’. Now I know that is not realistic and certainly won’t happen in this country, but he has a point: news of individuals receiving 30 years’ imprisonment for carrying a knife would spread like wildfire throughout every community and fewer people would be willing to risk carrying one, which would undoubtedly lead to a sharp downturn in their use. People like the YouTube gangster rapper I referred to earlier would vanish from the public eye – now that would really send a message!

‘Tough love’ to effect change

People often label as ‘harsh’ matters they don’t fully understand. You have to have direct experience of communities in which stabbings are rife to fully understand it and the impact it has – it provides an insight that watching a special report on the news or reading about it in the newspapers cannot. Stabbings ruin lives; obviously those of the victims, but equally those of their family and friends, those of the perpetrators, and of their families too. Now is the time more than ever to show ‘tough love’ to effect change. How many more families will be torn apart by knives before the government and other authorities finally take the strong, definitive action required to address it? People feel comfortable carrying knives and this comfort must be disrupted. It is time to protect our young people from each other, and themselves.

Contributor Jesse Cook, a barrister at Pump Court Chambers

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Jesse Cook

Jesse is a barrister at Pump Court Chambers. He formerly worked as a paralegal and in legal recruitment and is a mentor to young people from difficult backgrounds.