Tag Archives: Knife crime

Rebutting Tory attack lines: crime and punishment

Rebutting Tory attack lines: crime and punishment
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
22 November 2019

Earlier this month the Guardian reported the Tories hope to win Labour seats at the general election “with a tough stance on law and order”.

This follows a string of tabloid-friendly announcements by Boris Johnson’s government in October, including extending sentences, creating 10,000 new prison places, increasing police numbers and giving the police more stop and search powers. Polling indicates these proposals may have widespread public support, with an August 2019 YouGov poll finding 75 per cent of people support increasing stop and search powers, including 61% of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.

While Labour’s policies on this issue may not be as radical or evidence-based as one would like – the party has uncritically echoed the Tories with a pledge to increase police numbers, for example – it is important to rebut right-wing myths about crime and punishment.

First it is important to note the Conservative Party’s whole law and order agenda, including its incoming attack lines on Corbyn’s Labour Party, is based on a myth – that the UK is currently soft on crime and criminals.

In reality, “Scotland and England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe”, the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) note in their authoritative Bromley Briefing. England and Wales have 139 prisoners per 100,000 people, while Germany has 77, and Sweden just 59.

Today the prison population of England and Wales is 82,440, up from around 50,000 in the late 1980s.

As this suggests, today “sentencing is much, much tougher than it used to be”, Peter Dawson, the Director of PRT, wrote in the Metro newspaper last month.

Ministry of Justice statistics show in 2018 more than two and a half times as many people were sentenced to 10 years or more than in 2006. “We have a higher proportion of life sentenced prisoners than any other country in Europe, including Russia and Turkey”, Dawson notes. And, incredibly, England and Wales have more people serving indeterminate sentences – prison sentences which don’t have a fixed length of time – “than Germany, Russia, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia combined”, according to PRT.

The problem is, as Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, and Steve Tombs, Professor Criminology at the Open University, noted in the Guardian in August, “The idea that yet another prison building programme, and tougher sentences, will increase public protection is a fallacy.”

“There is no link between the prison population and levels of crime”, PRT confirms, citing National Audit Office data.

The writer Johann Hari brilliantly clarified the politics around this in 2003: “The choice is not between ‘tough’ and ‘soft’ it is between effective and useless”, he wrote in the Independent. “‘Tough’ policies – put them in an empty cell and leave them to rot and rape each other – just don’t work.  It is not those of us who want rehabilitation who are betraying the mugged grannies and the burgled primary schools – it is the [ex-Home Secretary Michael] Howards and the [ex-Home Secretary David] Blunketts, who choose facile posturing over policies that actually work.”

Ditto police numbers, which have little connection to crime levels according to the Guardian. “Violent crime…. was falling between 2009 and 2014 – at the same time as police officer numbers were being cut”, the newspaper notes. “And in 2008, when police numbers were at a high, knife deaths of teenagers and children were higher than they had been over the previous 10 years.”

The evidence underpinning more stop and search powers is similarly shaky. Citing a study by Marian Fitzgerald, a Visiting Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, in 2010 the Guardian noted “there is little connection between the use of stop and search powers by the Metropolitan Police and reductions in knife crime.” Analysing the use of Section 60 in London – which allow the police to introduce stop and search without suspicion in a designated area at a specific time – Fitzgerald found “The boroughs which have resisted politically driven pressures to take a gung-ho approach to using Section 60 have been as successful in reducing knife crime, and often more so, than the boroughs where the police have been happy to let Section 60 searches go through the roof.”

In contrast to the Tory’s narrative, in 2007 Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, noted “a plethora of research shows that the criminal justice system can have little effect on crime overall, which flows from deeper social and cultural wellsprings.” Reiner’s take is backed up by testimony from Patricia Gallan in 2018, then Assistant Commissioner Specialist Crime and Operations in the Metropolitan Police, who noted “Those that end up in the criminal justice system tend to be the people who have less money and less opportunity in society.” Indeed the government’s own Serious Violence Strategy notes that crime and anti-social behaviour “correlate with… poor life outcomes such as low educational attainment, poor health and unemployment.”

This gets to the heart of the matter, with the authors of the 2007 Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report Knife Crime: A Review of Evidence and Policy arguing “The link between crime and deeper structural causes of inequality, poverty and social disaffection needs to be fully acknowledged and acted upon if the solutions are to be more than cosmetic and short term.”

And this is where a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn comes in – as the best chance we have had for generations to reorder the economy and tax system, to reduce poverty, properly fund public services, introduce a decent living wage, expand adult education and thus create a more equal, cohesive society. It is these structural changes, rather than the tabloid’s evidence-free obsessions of tougher sentencing and more “bobbies on the beat”, that will significantly reduce the level of crime and antisocial behaviour in society.

Further reading: Prison Reform Trust’s summer 2019 Bromley Briefing http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Publications/Factfile.

Tomorrow Ian will look at the evidence behind claims Corbyn’s Labour Party is “riddled” with antisemitism. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Knife crime: myth and reality

Knife crime: myth and reality
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 May 2019

Fuelled by the right-wing media, a number of myths have grown up around the topic of knife crime. With the number of knife offences (39,818) and homicides committed with a knife (285) reaching record highs in 2018, according to the Home Office, it’s worth interrogating these falsehoods, and considering interventions which might help.

Myth: Knife crime is committed “almost exclusively” by young Black men. Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in March, co-host Piers Morgan stated “statistically, it looks like in London, right now… the perpetrators and the victims appear to be almost exclusively young Black men.”

Reality: Citing Freedom of Information requests made to police forces, in July 2018 Sky News noted that in London “Almost half of murder victims – as well as suspects – were black despite the ethnic group accounting for just 13% of London’s population.” However, Sky News also explained “Numbers for the rest of the country painted a different picture, with murder victim and suspect figures more or less proportionate to the makeup of the population.” For example, in February BBC News noted the worst place for fatal stabbings in the UK, in proportion to population, was Inverclyde in Scotland. A few miles to the east the 95 per cent white Glasgow was, until recently, dubbed – by the Daily Mail – “the knife crime capital of Britain”.

“There are likely to be important socio-economic factors in homicides that cannot be examined using” the basic data, a 2019 Office for National Statistics report conceded. Indeed, according to the Serious Violence Strategy published by the government last year “the evidence on links between serious violence and ethnicity is limited. Once other factors are controlled for, it is not clear from the evidence whether ethnicity is a predictor of offending or victimisation.” Taking a “wide range of factors into account”, including ethnicity, a 2003 study by the Youth Justice Board titled Young People & Street Crime echoed this conclusion. It found “two main factors explained differences in the levels of street crime between [London] boroughs… the level of deprivation… and the extent of population change” – the number of young people as a proportion of the total population.

“Crime is prevalent in poor areas, and since black people are disproportionality poor, they are disproportionately affected – as perpetrators and victims”, The Guardian’s Gary Younge noted in 2017, after extensive investigative work into knife crime. “It’s class – not race or culture – that is the defining issue.”

Myth: Stop and search is effective in reducing knife crime. “Police in England and Wales are being given greater stop and search powers to tackle rising knife crime”, BBC News reported at the end of March. “Home Secretary Sajid Javid is making it easier for officers to search people without reasonable suspicion in places where serious violence may occur.”

Reality: “There is a misconception that just doing loads more stop and search is the solution… that is simply not the case”, explained Nick Glynn, the former College of Policing lead on stop and search, on Channel 4 News last month. The news programme compared Metropolitan Police figures on Section 60 stop and search powers – which allow the police to introduce stop and search without suspicion in a designated area at a specific time – with knife crime offences from the Mayor of London’s office. In 2016 the Met used Section 60 442 times, and there was 11,132 knife crime offences. In 2018 the Met massively increased their use of section 60 to 7,326 times. However, there was also an increase in knife crime offences in the same year – to 14,714.

“The inconsistent nature and weakness” of the association between stop and search and crime levels, “provide only limited evidence of stop and search having acted as a deterrent at a borough level”, a 2017 College of Policing study concluded after analysing data from 2000-2014.

This is not news. Citing a study conducted by Marian Fitzgerald, a Visiting Professor of Criminology at the University of Kent, in 2010 the Guardian noted “there is little connection between the use of stop and search powers by the Metropolitan police and reductions in knife crime.”

Fitzgerald analysed the use of Section 60 in London. “The boroughs which have resisted politically driven pressures to take a gung-ho approach to using Section 60 have been as successful in reducing knife crime, and often more so, than the boroughs where the police have been happy to let Section 60 searches go through the roof”, she noted.

Myth: More and tougher prison sentences will reduce knife crime. “Despite the rhetoric you hear from politicians about being tough on those who carry knives two-thirds of people who are convicted don’t face prison”, John Apter, Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, noted on Good Morning Britain in March. “We have a Justice Secretary saying we need to scarp shorter sentences because the prisons are full. My argument – build more prisons.”

Reality: The evidence shows that compared to ten years ago those convicted for carrying a knife are more likely to be jailed, and if jailed they are more likely to spend longer inside. Quoting Ministry of Justice figures, in March BBC News explained that 37 per cent of offenders were jailed and a further 18 per cent given suspended prison sentences in 2018, compared to 20 per cent and 9 per cent respectively in 2008. The average prison term has increased from five months in 2008 to well over eight months in 2018, with 85 per cent serving at least three months in 2018, compared to 53 per cent in 2008.

More broadly, the UK has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe (141 prisoners per 100,000 people).

However, it is essential to understand “there is no link between the prison population and levels of crime”, as the Prison Reform Trust explained in its 2018 Bromley Briefing, directly quoting the National Audit Office. Robert Reiner, Professor of Criminology at the London School of Economics, confirmed this awkward fact in the Guardian in 2007: “A plethora of research shows that the criminal justice system can have little effect on crime overall, which flows from deeper social and cultural wellsprings”.

Tackling the real causes of knife crime

Speaking on Good Morning Britain in March Akala, a hip hop artist and author of Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire, noted “the social indicators” of violent street crime have remained “consistent for 200 years: relative poverty, masculinity, exposure to domestic violence, lack of education.”

His take broadly echoes the thoughts of Patricia Gallan, who was Assistant Commissioner Specialist Crime and Operations in the Metropolitan Police. “If you start looking at where crime impacts, it happens in the poorest areas of society”, she told the Guardian in June 2018. “Those that end up in the criminal justice system tend to be the people who have less money and less opportunity in society.”

The austerity implemented since 2010 by the Tories (and Lib Dems until 2015) has created a perfect storm of harmful societal effects. Inequality and absolute poverty increased in 2017-18, according to Department for Work and Pensions data; over 100 youth centres have closed in London since the 2011 riots, according to figures obtained by the Green Party’s Sian Berry; the number of primary school children who have been excluded across the country has doubled since 2011, according to official government data. Most frightening is the recent warning from the Resolution Foundation’s Adam Corlett that the “bulk” of the effects of the government’s planned £12 billion benefit cuts will be felt over the next few years, with poverty rates likely to increase to a record high.

Poverty, inequality and deprivation – these are the factors that need to be addressed if we want to significantly reduce knife crime. However, beyond these big shifts, it seems positive change is also possible within the current political and economic system.

In Glasgow, until recently the so-called “murder capital of Europe” with acute levels of knife crime, a Violence Reduction Unit was set up in 2005. Taking an arms-length relationship with the police, the unit has adopted a holistic, public health approach to the issue, working with the health, education and social work sectors, shifting away from seeing the problem as a purely criminal issue. The result? A substantial reduction in the number of children and teenagers killed by knives.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.