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Is a 'liberal' approach to knife crime working?
Friday 08 June 2012 by John Hyde
Don’t tell the Daily Mail, but the government is getting softer on knife crime - and it might just be working.
Yesterday the Ministry of Justice confirmed the offences and sentencing figures for the first quarter of 2012.
You can tell they’re happy with them - if they were truly awful they’d have been released on Friday, safe in the knowledge the country would be too overwhelmed by the Jubilee weekend to notice anything negative.
Instead, there was no need to bury this particular piece of news (although ironically few media outlets seem to have picked up on them yet). Overall, there were 4,821 recorded offences for possession of a knife or offensive weapon in the first three months of 2012. This was a rise of 35 on the previous quarter but 440 (8%) fewer than the same period in 2011.
Indeed, since the first quarter of 2010, the last time a Labour government was in power for the full period, knife crimes have reduced by more than 500 in England and Wales.
For offenders aged under 18, the figures are even more promising: recorded offences have dropped by 16% in each year of this government, from a peak of almost 1,000 in Q1 2010 to 836 in the last quarter. There are, of course, factors to explain the positive trend. We’re only talking about recorded offences here, so there is no way of knowing how many people are carrying or using knifes undetected.
There is also the possibility that many potential offenders were simply off the streets in the last six months - the third quarter saw a noticeable increase in the number of offenders given an immediate custodial sentence (coinciding with the fallout of the August riots).
Yet can the government really celebrate these figures when they are such an indictment of its flagship pre-election policy?
To remind those at the back: the Conservative Party promised in 2010 that 'anyone caught carrying a knife can expect to be prosecuted and face a prison sentence’.
Within six months, this policy was quietly dropped, although the government has, through LASPO, since ensured that 'aggravated’ knife offences are punishable by jail.
But those promises of 2010 are looking more empty with every passing month. In the last quarter of 2012, 25% of knife offences resulted in prison, a minor fall on the same period in 2011 and a significant drop on the final quarter of 2011.
Judges and magistrates are almost equally likely to impose a community sentence, whilst suspended jail sentences have risen by 92% in the last year. For all the hardline rhetoric, our courts are increasingly seeking alternative (and innovative) ways to punish knife offenders.
One thing is for sure; whether it’s a pragmatic approach based on limited prison numbers, or a liberal outlook initiated quietly by justice secretary Kenneth Clarke, this government is jailing just a minority of knife offenders.
And what do you know? The signs are it might be a success. Long may it continue.
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