In today’s climate, it is unsurprising that domestic headlines have been dominated in recent years by reports of increasing knife crime among young people. During talks with the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, the chairwoman of the National Police Chief’s Council, Sara Thornton, said that the number of fatal stabbings involving young people is “a national emergency”. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2018 over 21,000 knife and offensive weapon crimes were recorded, the most dealt with since 2009, when 25,103 offences were registered. But the question remains: Why are so many young people turning to a life of violent crime, and who is really to blame for this growing threat to public safety?
Recent cuts to police funding is thought to be one of the leading causes of rising crime in the UK. Since she became home secretary in 2010, the current prime minister Theresa May has supported the removal of 21,500 police officers in England and Wales. She has justified this decision by pointing out the falling levels of crime in the UK since the mid-1990s. In her opinion, if crime is falling, then so should the number of police officers protrolling our streets.
This policy has faced major backlash in light of recent youth crime, with almost 40,000 offences involving knives or sharp instruments in England and Wales in the year to September 2018. However, May continues to insist that there is “no direct correlation between certain crime and police numbers”. Speaking to the Observer, the former Metropolitan police commissioner Lord Blair has said that the rise in violent crime alongside government cuts to police funding may not be a coincidence. He argues that “crime is clearly an indicator of societal health, particularly violent crime” and that “it does seem odd that the cut in the budget for policing by 20% coincides with a significant rise in crime of all sorts”. Sara Thornton speaks more emphatically on the issue, stressing the importance of understanding the relation and to “just look at the facts”. According to Thornton, “we know that we are taking longer to get to emergencies, we are arresting fewer people, we are charging fewer people, so I think that there is a link and we need to really look at what we can do in terms of policing to stop the violence and killings now”. With the chancellor Phillip Hammond issuing an extra £100m to police forces last month after a wave of fatal stabbings, it seems that such a relationship does exist between the rise in crime and police funding, and the government is quickly realising the importance of their role in bringing this “national emergency” under control.
Another area of contention surrounding the rise of violent youth crime is the sentencing of such offences. In 2018, 37% of crimes involving knives and offensive weapons ended in immediate custodial sentences, compared with 20% in 2008. Statistics have also shown that the average length of custodial sentences also increased over the same period, from 5.4 months to 8.1 months. The sentencing of these crimes, especially those involving young people, is thought to be highly ineffective by several members of parliament, including the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse. She believes that “these pointless sentences do nothing to deter young people and offer no chance of rehabilitating them. Instead, they cost millions and only worsen the crisis of overcrowding in our prisons”. The rise in youth crime is also thought to be linked to funding cuts to schools in recent years. Of the 21,484 knife-related instances last year, 4,430 were offenders aged 10 to 17. Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector has said that “schools simply do not have the ability to counter the deep-seated societal problems behind the rise in knife crime”, and that a “harmful narrative” of exclusions leading to children joining gangs and using knives may not be one of cause and effect, but rather “two symptoms of the same underlying problems, exacerbated by cuts to local authority children’s services”. The urgency of this situation cannot be understated. Charities across the UK are desperately trying to widen educational opportunities for young people in order to dissuade them from a life of violent crime. Diana Fawcett, the chief officer at the charity Victim Support urges the government for further resources: “Families and communities are being devastated by knife crime and it is the responsibility of all agencies to come together to solve this”.
Finally, one of the biggest issues concerning youth crime in the UK today is the growing stereotype that it is a “race problem”, dominated by members of minority ethnic groups. This is fuelled by recent statistics published by the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime that the Metropolitan Police have been disproportionately targeting London’s black population. According to these figures, black people make up 15.6% of London’s population while white people make up 59.8%. In 2018, 43% of searches were of black people, while 35.5% were white. Despite this disparity, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has called on police forces to “vigorously” step up stop and search operations and ignore claims the tactic is discriminatory. In response, Sgt Tola Munro, the president of the National Black Police Association has said: “It is no excuse to suggest that weapons or drugs are more likely to be found on Black and Asian people. Even if there were that does not excuse this disproportionality – it’s not unconscious, it’s systematic racial profiling”. The stigmatisation of ethnic minorities in the case of youth crime has attracted significant media attention in recent months, particularly from the British author and hip-hop artist, Akala. During an interview with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, Akala pointed our that some of the “most horrendous” knife attacks have taken place outside of London, where “both the victim and the perpetrators were white”. This opinion has been echoed by white rapper Professor Green, who has said that black youths are being “criminalised” over recent stabbings, and that in some places “knife crime is white”. In an attempt to tackle this racial discrimination, London mayor Sadiq Khan has ordered a “comprehensive overhaul” of police database systems which racially stigmatise members of minority ethnic groups. In addition to this, his announcement of a £13 million cash injection to tackle youth crime in the capital is another vital step in the crusade against crime and racial prejudice in the UK.
Yet, whether relating to police cuts, flaws in the justice system, or racial discrimination, the rising tide of youth crime in the UK is far from over. The recent injection of government funding is just one of the many attempts to solve this “national emergency” and whilst its relation to police numbers may not be as simple as cause and effect, it is certainly impossible to ignore. It is clear the national justice system needs to do more if they are to prevent young people from committing these crimes as children of all ethnicities can be exposed to violence if the right support systems are not in place. In reality, there is no quick fix to this situation, and perhaps it can never be truly solved. However, there is a hope that with the right changes, the young people of our community will learn to view themselves as opposed to this kind of violence, and not dependent upon it.