Several recent deaths of teenagers in so-called ‘knife-crime’ incidents have raised concerns about the level of violence affecting young people in England and Wales.
ITV weatherman Alex Beresford hit the headlines when he passionately interrupted an otherwise anodyne discussion taking place on Good Morning Britain to say that prison does not and cannot work, and unless wider social problems of school exclusion, homelessness and lack of meaningful employment are addressed the problems will continue. His intervention went viral on social media, as did the brilliant deconstruction of the myths surrounding ‘black on black’ violence by the writer and social commentator Akala, on the same show
A rise in the number of recorded deaths from sharp instruments such as knives is beyond dispute and at a record level. These crimes also disproportionately affect certain groups. The figures for 2018, for example, show that 1 in 4 victims were aged between 18 and 24 and 25% were black.
Does this mean, then, that the crisis is real and we are facing an ‘epidemic’ of violence that threatens to engulf a generation of young people? The answer to this question is emphatically ‘no’.
Firstly, the figures should be seen in the context of overall trends. 2018’s record figure is only just ahead of the previous peak of 272 in 2007, and follows eight years of steady decline. There is also a question of how these incidents relate to the scale of violence in the population as a whole.
As Akala helpfully pointed out on Channel 4 news, “there are 1.2 million black people living in London. In a bad year 50 of them will kill someone. That represents less than 0.04% of the population. In Glasgow in a bad year, say 2005, 40 people were murdered. That means you were more than twice as likely to be killed”.
How should we respond to this emerging picture? Firstly, there is no evidence that tougher sentencing either acts as a deterrent or reduces the incidence of violent crime in the long run. It is just not possible to help people to turn their lives around when there not enough resources being put in to support change in any meaningful way. Within the context of generalised austerity, prisons and probation have become the warehouses and holding pens of those who have been least able to manage in society.
School academisation, increasing pressure to remove ‘difficult’ children from the competitive environment, and cuts in early help services that support struggling families have increased the likelihood of young people turning to a life to crime, either out of material necessity or in distorted search for identity as part of a gang. Having taken that step, carrying a knife often becomes the means by which to gain respect from others who are as desperate as you.
Napo has a key role to play in raising the issues around knife crime in the wider labour and trade union movement. In doing so we can cut across many of the myths that surround the rise in youth violence and fight for the resources necessary to make our communities safer.
In working with young people and those subject to probation supervision we recognise that increased police powers to ‘stop and search’ and a repressive enforcement agenda will not address the root causes of violent crime and are likely to increase the stigmatisation of young people, especially those from the BME community. Napo Branches can help with this by raising the issue in their local trades council with a view to establishing joint campaigns with workers and voluntary groups addressing the root causes of these problems, such as poverty, school exclusions and cuts to youth and social services.
Chair, Kent, Surrey and Sussex Branch