Officials Struggle With Rise in Knife Crimes Among Britain’s Youths
LONDON — Every day, it seems, there are more victims. Shakilus Townsend, 16, stabbed to death by a masked gang. Ben Kinsella, also 16, fatally stabbed during an argument outside a pub. Victims in Bristol, Manchester and Glasgow. Four people fatally stabbed in London in one 24-hour period alone last week.
In a country where few people have guns or access to them, a spate of knife attacks, many involving teenagers, has forced the issue to the top of the domestic agenda. The Metropolitan Police are so concerned, they said recently, they have made knife crime their top priority, along with terrorism. Government and law enforcement officials are scrambling to produce plans to allay public fears.
On Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a series of measures that he said would make it “completely unacceptable to carry a knife.” The plan includes automatic prosecution for anyone over the age of 16 caught with a knife and doubling the maximum sentence for knife possession, to four years. It also sets up a $6 million advertising campaign to discourage young people from committing crimes with knives and a program to force perpetrators to confront their actions by, for instance, attending courses that describe what happens to stabbing victims.
The prime minister also said the government would intervene directly with as many as 20,000 families whose children were considered at risk of turning to violence because “the mother or father have lost control of their children and their whole life is actually in difficulty.” Parents who refused to accept the government intervention, he said, would be threatened with eviction from their homes.
“Too many people, young and old, do not feel safe in the streets, and sometimes even in their homes,” he said, speaking at his monthly news conference.
But opponents of the government complained that the plans were merely warmed-over versions of past initiatives.
“Jacqui Smith is coming up with the same half-baked ideas because the government has been in denial about the scale of the knife crime problem,” Chris Huhne, the home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democratic party, said, referring to the home secretary, who has offered a number of proposals recently.
Knife crime, most often involving weapons like simple kitchen knives, has dominated the headlines in recent weeks, with reports of fresh cases every day. But statistically, the picture is more murky. Violent crime over all has actually decreased by 41 percent from a peak in 1995, according to the British Crime Survey, in which citizens report their exposure to crime.
Yet the survey accounts only for people 16 and older, and evidence suggests that young people in poorer areas are increasingly likely to carry knives, and increasingly likely to use them. The Daily Telegraph, which examined data from three-fourths of the police forces in England and Wales, reported recently that nearly 21,000 people had been stabbed or mugged at knifepoint so far this year.
Doctors in busy emergency rooms say they are seeing a steep increase in patients admitted with injuries caused by violence, often involving sharp objects like glass bottles or kitchen knives. A recent study by the Center for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University found that the number of people admitted to hospitals after arriving in the emergency rooms with injuries caused by violence had increased by 30 percent across England in the last four years.
According to the study, rates of admission as a result of violence were six times higher in the poorest fifth of the country than in its most affluent areas. “The difference between the experience of violence between the wealthier and poorer communities is quite dramatic, even for children as young as 14,” said Mark Bellis, director of the center and an author of the study.
The government’s plans, part of a $200 million program to combat youth crime, are the latest in a series of measures meant to address the country’s problem with knife crimes.
In May, Ms. Smith, the home secretary, announced a $10 million knife-crime-reduction program in problem cities.
In London, where 20 teenagers have been killed with knives so far this year, the police embarked on a six-week blitz in May. About 27,000 people were searched, 1,200 were arrested and 500 knives were seized, the authorities said.
The Conservative Party said the government’s plans did not go far enough and called for steeper penalties. The party’s leader, David Cameron, told reporters: “If you are carrying a knife and you are caught, you should expect to go to prison. Plain, simple, clear.”
But Mr. Huhne of the Liberal Democrats said that approach was the wrong one. Young people in Britain — who regularly score at the bottom of charts that measure relative deprivation, poverty, educational attainment, health and general well-being in Europe — have been subject to “mass criminalization,” he said.
“By dragging more and more young people through the criminal justice system, they have reduced the fear of a criminal record and contributed to the problem,” he said.
Roger Grimshaw, research director of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, said little was known about how many people carry knives and under what circumstances. “We need to look at the violence itself instead of focusing on the instrument, because clearly knives are very available,” he said.
“Many of these people come from disadvantaged districts in which there is a buildup of fear,” he said. “We have to think about the circumstances in which young people are tempted to use violence, where they have few resources and a law-abiding lifestyle is not a rewarding one.”
Professor Bellis of the Center for Public Health said that the authorities should be “intervening far earlier, before violence erupts” in problem areas.
“For certain communities, violence dominates,” he said. “We have to provide education and support for those families that need additional support, and we have to tackle inequalities. Many people are growing up in environments where they feel they have very little to lose.”