"I’m just telling you that if I get stabbed it will be your fault because you keep moaning at me about carrying knives and if I haven’t got a knife then all I can do is run."
At the time, I didn’t know how powerful these words were and how they would come back to haunt me. Only three months later, this young man was stabbed eleven times. Left bleeding out in front of horrified theatre goers and clutching onto something he knew was important but didn’t know why – only later to learn it was his intestines.
When his Dad arrived at the hospital the doctors told him to expect his son to die. He was just 16. Severed tendons, stab wounds to his stomach, legs, back and side. By the grace of God (or whatever your preference is) this young man came through.
That comment he made goes over and over in my head. As a YOT worker, I accepted that everything was not black and white. I have been a YOT worker for many, many years and spent most of that time specialising in gangs, Court and the high-risk cases (sex offenders, most prolific etc). I always accept that we don’t live in their shoes – nobody does but them, and so as much as I can empathise and try to support them, the young people we work with lead a life completely unique to them. As much as anyone tries to sell you a story that they’ve lived that life – they haven’t. Each and every young person we work with has their own story, lived it their own way and all of us can only try to understand. But we do – because we all care.
This week, once again, the news has been riddled with the latest cases of children (and adults) that have been murdered through knife crime. Birmingham, London, Manchester. A 17 year old female stabbed so hard that the knife broke leaving the blade lodged in her back. Three knife-related murders in one week in Birmingham. Sunday the Government announce that they will be dealing with the issue as a ‘national emergency’.
When we have national emergencies the Government often offer thousands, if not millions, in aid and funding to support the issue. More often than not that money leaves the UK. It’s amazing that we can support other countries so quickly in their time of need. But here, the numbers keep rising.
Knife-related crime, stabbings and murders as well as weapon-related crime is at an all-time high. Murder victims get one day of press (if they’re lucky) before they are having to report the ‘next in line’. Family after family after family literally gutted, their lives destroyed because of someone deciding to use a knife. Certain communities where children climb over ‘home-made’ memorials to get to school where flowers are left to rot and cards signify another tragic loss of life. So used to seeing those areas laid out they don’t even notice them anymore – as normal and routine as a road sign or post box.
"Five young people I have worked with or known lost their lives from knife crime."
This last year has been particularly hard for me (and many other YOT workers and professionals working on the front line) – five young people I have worked with and/or known lost their lives from knife crime. One in particular I spoke to only 24 hours before he was murdered and made plans to ‘catch up’. This case in particular has been almost a year and I still cannot get past the call I received telling me – questioning the validity of the source, questioning how it can happen, questioning whether it’s time to come away from a job/career that is tainted by sadness, grief and feelings of ‘could I have done more’ so regularly. By considering how I feel, I cannot begin to imagine how the families and friends of these people feel. I keep coming back to the same question ‘why?’.
I cannot fathom why people choose to put a knife into another person. What are they thinking? How are they feeling? Yet, on a daily basis, over the years I go to work and work with young people that do exactly that. I’ve heard all of the excuses – self-defence, I didn’t mean to, it just happened, him or me, etc. But why? Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get to the bottom of it. Sometimes I see the young person question their actions daily, feel regret and remorse daily but then some also never, ever take any responsibility.
So where do we begin to address it?
Yes, the Government announced new provisions will be coming into force to prevent people from carrying knives. Hate to say it but it’s already there – it’s called ‘the Law’. They announced abilities for police to add stringent conditions on those that carry blades. I said it on here only recently – they are already available. Why are they not being used – the police have the ability to place those conditions on the offender’s post-charge (or even pre-charge in some circumstances) but don’t. Court’s have the power to add conditions when they appear at Court – but don’t. YOT’s and Probation have the ability to add conditions on Court Orders via prohibited activities, tagging and exclusions – not all do. Sentencing provisions are already in place for knife crime/offenders and have been so for many years including mandatory sentencing for second-time offenders convicted of possession of offensive weapons (aged 16+).
Part of my role over the years has been to run the Youth Court for the area I worked – on average, over the last five years, there is at least one young person appearing at Court for possession of an offensive weapon or a bladed article. In the last year or so, that number has increased significantly with an average of three each week. Having spoken to YOT workers in other areas across the UK they see the same. So clearly the numbers are going up. But we already know that – knife crime has increased significantly.
Do you know how many young people I have dealt with in Court over the last ten years go to prison for carrying a knife – two! And one of those immediately, and successfully, applied for bail pending an appeal against his sentence which he later went on to win as the sentence (six-month DTO) was considered ‘manifestly excessive’. In addition, not a single one of those cases that I can recall (and I have an excellent memory – ask anyone that knows me) came to Court with bail conditions.
Additionally, the amount of young people across the England and Wales still being offered Youth Cautions/pre-Court intervention for knife or weapon-related offending is staggering. I can’t comment on the adult offenders but I am sure there will still be adult offenders being offered Cautions.
"I wasn’t going to use it."
So, if those powers are available now – why are they not being used. For those of us working in YOT for many years – remember when Lord Chief Justice Woolf announced that any street robbers would immediately go to prison – he stuck by that. I recall a time telling each and every young person that came to me for a robbery – ‘sorry, but you’ll be going to Crown Court and then prison’. And every one of them did – often for a minimum of two years. The same with dwelling burglaries. Over the years I’ve seen longer sentences for burglaries than I have for stabbings.
A few years ago, the press was rife with reports of acid attacks. Around two years ago there were three sentences of significant length that genuinely shook the offenders/carriers up. One of my lads said ‘there’s no way I’m carrying acid now – it’s the same as an ‘m charge’, I’m not spending ten years in prison for that’. And those offences dropped.
Another of my lads who is now over 18 told me that he carries a knife regularly – not for protection but because ‘everyone else is’. It’s as routine as the ‘keys, wallet, phone’ check – people regularly leaving home with a knife or weapon concealed in their waistband (or some other place – I’ve seen it all including one who carried a crutch everywhere with a large sword concealed inside). In Court, the top three excuses are usually – protection, ‘I found it’ and ‘it’s my friend’s coat/bag/jeans’. This is often followed by ‘I was going fishing’. My favourite was ‘I was cutting onions, had to go for a wee, my friend called over and I went out but forgot I put it in my pocket when I went for a wee’ (I kid you not!). When you ask what they need from protection from the stock answer is usually ‘just in case’ followed by ‘I wasn’t going to use it’.
For those I have known that have used the knife, they say ‘I didn’t plan to – it just happened’ yet more often than not they can’t appreciate how had they not carried a knife that day, they wouldn’t have used it. I talk about those cases to the ones who come to me for possession – they all say they wouldn’t use it but in the heat of the moment how can anyone be sure. We’ve all done things in the heat of the moment when in anger, in drink or if a situation arises and we’ve all questioned our actions later. The same applies to those who carry knives. I don’t care what any of them say, if the situation arises, there is a very high possibility they will feel the need to use the knife.
"We need better sentencing powers and we need them now."
I really do believe that it is the only way we will see any reduction in knife crime. Stop and search needs to be increased and used routinely. Yes, it’s open to abuse and misuse of power but so is everything else in this world. Yes, people will say they are being unfairly targeted and that could well be true but maybe it needs to be a standard procedure across the board. We can all have an opinion about whether police are targeting certain ethnicities or ages or whatever but then we are also the first to shout out ‘what are the police doing’ when people are brazenly walking around with weapons or committing crime. ‘More police on the streets’ they shout. But then when they are on the streets, we complain about that too. Is that the British in us? Not sure! We have the same issue with the weather, parking attendants and Brexit!
On a side note, I’ve seen videos on social media of police undertaking CPR on children that have been murdered and watched while the victim’s friends stand around filming, yet all saying nothing about what they saw or who slayed that child laying motionless on the concrete. I’ve spoken to hospital staff who have desperately tried to save the lives of these victims, having to tell the families their loved one has gone, listening to that horrific scream that they will never, ever forget of a parent whose world has just collapsed. I spare a thought for all of those who carry out those jobs without any thanks and often up against a barrage of abuse.
Now, as a YOT worker, our roles (and Probation too) are somewhat ‘in the middle’. Tasked with protecting the public but also rehabilitating offenders. Additionally, mindful that we are working with children so it ups the ante a bit. With every passing few years there is something new to consider – a new ‘buzz word’, a new issue to be mindful of – county lines, CSE, CCE, traumatic brain injury, adverse childhood experiences, etc. The whole welfare versus justice debate is a very fine line to walk.
So as much as I am actively saying we need harsher sentences for knife carriers, increased police and Court powers, mandatory sentencing etc, I have also stood up myself, many a time, and argued against custody for a young person who has carried a knife. I am sure many of my YOT contacts on here do the same – day in, day out. Why? Because we deal with the side that not many see. The vulnerable side, the side where we’ve worked with a young person for many years and have watched them grow and navigate life throughout all of their difficulties, the side where we wholly appreciate how hard it is to be a teenager now and how terrified they must be stepping out of their house every day worrying whether they’ll make it home that night. The side where they are grieving the loss or serious injury of a friend or family member – where they are so angry, they can’t put it into words. The side where they are ‘cast offs’ – by their own families at times, by their peers, their schools, professionals tasked to work with them. We see a different side. We’re not naïve by any stretch but we are often the only people that see that raw side. Additionally, we see kids go into prison, we see the system buckling, the kids who come out worse, more criminally-minded, more frightened and angrier at the world, institutionalised and we know it doesn’t always work – because of so many cuts – there’s no stable education, no stable association time, nothing constructive to do, limited valuable family time, limited valuable time with their key workers. Just caged. Caged with every other kid who might be in there for rape, murder, violence or just breaching their Order for a minor offence.
But, there comes a time when even after all of that, enough is enough. We’ve done the niceties. We will still all be there to support these offenders because we care about what we do. I am sure that if the message gets out that anyone carrying a knife will go to prison the message will be heard – it might take a while but it will be heard.
We need to retrain this generation of young people – carrying a knife has serious and lifelong implications for offenders, the victims, the families of both and the public. A national emergency it might well be. But why are we still asking for someone to do something – how many more people need to be stabbed or murdered before action takes place? We keep asking and nobody seems to be hearing us.
This is a guest blog by Ceryl Marsh, Case Manager, Southend Youth Offending Team.