New Study Casts Doubt on Labour’s Knife Policy

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Newly published research into gangs and knife carrying has suggested that Labour’s proposed automatic jail sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife will have little effect on violent crime amongst youths.

The results of the research, published by the Scottish Government, suggested people who carry knives rarely use them and that they are instead sparingly deployed as a ‘deterrent’ to warn off would-be attackers.


Newly published research into gangs and knife carrying has suggested that Labour’s proposed automatic jail sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife will have little effect on violent crime amongst youths.

The results of the research, published by the Scottish Government, suggested people who carry knives rarely use them and that they are instead sparingly deployed as a ‘deterrent’ to warn off would-be attackers.

The study concluded that adopting blanket ‘one-size fits all’ policies on gangs and knife-carrying are largely ineffective and recommended instead deploying targeted intervention strategies – like those seen in the successful Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) in Glasgow.

The CIRV initiative has seen gang-related violence drop by 46 per cent in the first 18 months.  It is due to be evaluated at the end of the two year pilot.

The findings are a serious blow to Iain Gray and his Labour group for whom the mandatory six months sentence has been a flagship policy.  The study also appears to exonerate the Scottish Government’s decision to overturn the decision by Holyrood’s justice committee who recently backed mandatory six-month jail sentences for anyone caught with a knife.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said the conclusion of the research was that there were no “quick fixes or easy solutions, one-size-fits-all policies” to knife crime and gang culture.

Mr MacAskill added:
“What we need is targeted action which tackles the causes – drink, drugs, deprivation and the deep-rooted culture of gangs ingrained in some communities,”

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, head of the Violence Reduction Unit, said:
“We know from experience there is no one solution to the problem of gang violence – what encourages one person to turn away from that lifestyle may not work with another. That’s why we couldn’t simply copy the CIRV model wholesale from the US – we had to tailor the programme to fit the specific issues in the East End of Glasgow. This principle also applies within the project itself – there is no one single method of engagement, no one single method of assistance, there are a range.

“The same can be said of violence generally – it is not just about gangs or knives, it is about a whole range of unacceptable behaviours. Tackling them requires a variety of methods rather than just one.”

Labour’s Justice Spokesman Richard Baker refused to accept the analysis and stated that Labour would not alter its stance on mandatory sentencing.

Mr Baker said:
“I have never seen any empirical data from anybody that says that mandatory sentencing does not work,”

The North East MSP added:
“We do have mandatory sentences for gun crimes and firearms, offences that for the past few years have been going down, which suggests that they work.

“I do not agree with the analysis and it will certainly not lead in any way to me rethinking our strategy in relation to mandatory sentences.”

A spokesman for Kenny MacAskill described Mr Baker’s comments as “nonsense” and argued that the policies being pursued by the Scottish Government were showing results.

He said: “This is hypocritical nonsense from Labour. New recorded crime statistics released earlier this week showed that in 2009-10 there was a 38% reduction in the number of people caught carrying knives in Grampian compared to the previous year, and a reduction of 28% compared to Labour’s last year in office, 2006-07.”

The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) scheme has included tactics such as:

  • Police bringing rival gangs together and showing them the intelligence they have already gathered on individual members
  • Senior officers targeting and attempting to break down the gang leadership
  • Health workers illustrating the injuries suffered by gang members and ex-offenders
  • The mother of a boy badly injured in a gang fight explaining the impact of violence on their lives

The report’s conclusions include:

  • Policy initiatives targeted at ‘core’ gang members may have a much wider impact on reducing youth disorder in terms of dispersing the gang through removing its central focus
  • Stand alone and one-off awareness raising strategies will have a limited impact in changing behaviours. Longer term and early interventions, such as family and neighbourhood (anti-territorial) based intervention projects, which recognise the context of communities with long gang traditions, and aim to make available resources and services aimed at helping and supporting very vulnerable young people, may hold the potential to support long-term change
  • Most knife carriers were aware of the physical and social risks of knife carrying and use, many carriers were aware of the risks of imprisonment (including a four year prison sentence for knife possession). This led some to resist carrying, but others are just choosing alternate weapons such as glass bottles, bricks and bats. In one case study, a youth describes carrying a hammer – but with nails in his pocket in case he is stopped by police
  • Report authors conclude the research has major implications for policy development as the findings indicate that mandatory minimum sentences for knife carriers are likely to target many young people who have little intention of using them but who may have deep rooted reasons for taking such a risk
  • There is an awareness of the negative consequences of carrying a knife, but knife carrying is often a rational choice based on the fear of experiencing victimisation. Report authors recommend that educational strategies that demonstrate the dangers of carrying weapons, but also make available resources and services aimed at helping and supporting those who feel vulnerable might be beneficial in tackling this problem
  • Alcohol was a precursor to violence in many instances
  • In all locations, the areas in which gangs were found were among the most deprived parts of the council area. This suggests the need to integrate socio-economic strategies with gang intervention strategies
  • Youth gang members are likely to be highly visible as problematic individuals and those known to the police and children’s hearing system are at a higher risk of being in a gang. Intervention strategies should be directed at youth street work, local police initiatives, schools and social work

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