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John Stillwell/PA Wire

Knife crime: why harsh prison sentences aren’t the answer for young people who carry knives

When new figures were released in March about knife crime in England and Wales, they showed offences involving knives were at a nine-year high. While this was sadly unsurprising, the data also revealed that those convicted are more likely to receive a custodial sentence. The average length of custodial sentences has also increased from five to eight months, suggesting those who maintain that the issue can be solved by tougher sentences and more prisons need a more nuanced understanding of the issues facing young people.

My ongoing research with more than 100 young offenders in London, including gang and former gang members, suggests that young people in certain areas of London start carrying knives at a young age because they are aware of the risks they face in their neighbourhoods. Most of the young men I’ve spoken to grew up in areas with high levels of deprivation with disproportionately high levels of violent crime compared to other areas of London. One young man started carrying a knife at the age of 12, as he was afraid to walk across his estate to and from school. Other young people starting carrying weapons when they witnessed older friends or siblings being attacked in their streets.

My research is making clear that homelessness is also a major issue for young people who become involved in offending. In some cases, children were asked to leave home by parents who didn’t know how else to stop them getting involved with drug dealing, or were worried about keeping younger siblings safe. Tragically, for some of these children, the violence they experienced at home makes living on the streets a better option that staying.

But being on the streets, no matter the reason, makes children vulnerable to violence and susceptible to becoming involved in gang activity. When children as young as 11 are homeless (as was the case for several of the young men I interviewed) and local authorities know what’s happening but fail to help and protect them, this becomes a big part of the problem.

Local authorities frequently abdicate their responsibility, particularly in relation to housing and young people – and fail to help these children because they are seen as “dangerous” or “criminal”, rather than vulnerable or in need of help. This only increases the likelihood that they will continue to engage in offending activities – often so that they can afford a place to sleep and food to eat.

Youth services decimated

Austerity has had a severe impact on services designed to support vulnerable young people. In 2018, the charity Action for Children noted that budgets for children’s services, particularly for children at risk of abuse and neglect, dropped by 26% between 2015 and 2018. Budgets for children’s centres across England have also decreased by 42%. At the same time, funding for both safeguarding services and for children in care increased by 10% during the same period, suggesting that money is being used to “firefight” crisis situations rather than prevent putting vulnerable children at risk.

Funding problems for schools in the poorest areas in England are also making the situation worse. Many of the schools in deprived neighbourhoods don’t have the resources available to help children with complex needs, and excluding young people from school leaves them vulnerable to being drawn into criminal activity.

Analysis from the YMCA England and Wales on cuts to youth services shows how local authorities are struggling to manage the reduction in funding from central government. The charity reports that spending across England and Wales has fallen by 61% between 2012 and 2018 and in London, the heart of the knife crime epidemic, spending on youth services has been slashed by 59% since 2010-11.

While many of the young people in my research carried knives, few of them carried weapons with the express intention of using them. They were carried for self-defence, and as the violence has grown worse, bigger knives are being used. My interviews with young people suggest that firearms and guns are increasingly easy to access, and the situation is likely to get worse if something isn’t done to address this issue.

Read more: Knife crime: important new findings could help us understand why people carry weapons

Helping vulnerable young people

While punitive approaches may seem like an easy solution, these “violent offenders” I spoke to were also incredibly vulnerable. Many had been stabbed or assaulted themselves, most had lost someone close to them to violence, and few had the ability to process the grief and trauma that comes with witnessing violence and death.

Almost all had been in prison at least once, but many felt they came out worse and more likely to offend than before they went in. Prison is not the answer for these young people. Anyone who thinks incarcerating a 14-year-old is a solution has probably never visited a young offenders institution.

Unfortunately, tackling knife crime and serious youth violence is complicated – and will require a great deal of time and resources to undo the years of damage that have already been done. More funding is needed for early years education, mental health provision, child social care and youth services – particularly for children now at risk of repeating the same mistakes.

In his spring statement in mid-March, the chancellor, Phillip Hammond, announced £100m would be given to police to try to tackle these issues. While this may help address the immediate violence on the streets, if more is not done to get at the root causes – poverty and the impacts of austerity on young people – knife crime and other violent crime will continue to grow. We know what the risk factors are, and we know how to start start tackling these issues. Holistic, community-oriented policing is important, but it is simply not enough.

Read more: Knife crime: causes and solutions – editors' guide to what our academic experts say

The “violent criminals” portrayed on the front page of tabloid newspapers were once vulnerable children that the system failed. They also need help and support. Austerity will continue to rip communities apart and destroy lives if radical changes aren’t made to a broken system.

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