Until around 2014, we were feeling hopeful. Knife crime, along with overall violence levels, was on the decline; slowly reducing in levels of attacks and offences. However, the reassuring trend was not set to last. Since then, data from the Home Office shows a continuous increase in the offences that involved a knife or sharp object across England and Wales. Killings by knife are at their highest since 1946. 1 in 5 perpetrators of knife related offences were under the age of 18. This shows a shocking state for our society, where young people are finding themselves in situations where they are committing criminal acts with a sharp weapon. No child or young person should feel like they can or should threaten, hurt or kill someone with a knife – but it seems at the moment, they do.
However, it’s not just young people committing these offences. They’re also the victims. Our children are hurting each other. Too many headlines are reporting on how yet another young person has been stabbed, usually in the larger cities like London, leaving a family and community devastated. As sentences for knife-related offences are getting tougher, gangs are turning to young people to exploit the fact that they’re more likely to be cautioned, instead of imprisoned. Under-18 year old’s not only are having to fear for their safety, but they’re also constantly at risk of being manipulated into acting criminally themselves.
So, what has led to this crisis? How have we reached the stage where ‘every parent’s nightmare’ is a reality for far too many families?
Lack of policing
There’s been a pressure cooker of factors leading to a rise in the number of knife related crimes, but there are 2 key areas which together, have had a major impact. Firstly, the lack of policing has played a key role in the worsening crisis of knife crime. While the Prime Minister denies a correlation between the increase and the recent decline in police numbers, it’s hard to not see it. If there are fewer boots on the pavement, policing all levels of criminal activity; then it becomes easier for gangs to get away with offences. Police teams across the country are struggling greatly to recruit the necessary numbers, due to lack of funding and incentives; leaving the existing police officers over stretched and trying to cover every angle in a region. It’s clear that this alone is an unsustainable solution to controlling the level of knife crime in England and Wales. A reduced police presence diminishes their authority within a community, leaving young people open to being exploited and manipulated into acting in a criminal manner.
The other main reason contributing to the current climate of injury, death or assault by knife is simple: austerity. Liza Minelli once sang “money makes the world go ‘round”. Jerry Maguire shouted “Show me the money”. You can’t escape the need for money in our modern world. No matter what your political perspectives on the policy of austerity, it’s clear that social work services in this country need money. The police are underfunded, meaning they have less reach to contain criminal activity. Social work services don’t have the finances to increase their numbers and effectively support vulnerable people; leaving many to fall prey to the influence of gangs and criminals. The funding for Youth Offending Teams has dropped to just over £250m in 2017, after a steady decline since 2011. If practitioners do not have the necessary resources to facilitate changes in the lives of young people under the influence of gangs, or in negative environments which make them feel violent, then these statistics of assaults and killings will simply continue to rise. Therefore, the continued policy of austerity has left those in a safeguarding position with their hands tied.
Closure of Community Centres
Austerity has also had a ripple on effect outside of the teams who are in place to support those who are vulnerable. The financial crisis across the country has meant that so many youth centres and community venues have closed, leaving children and young people with fewer places to go. Young people need a purpose, somewhere to divert their energy and fulfil their creativity; but currently they’re left without this outlet. Safe havens where children and youths can congregate and socialise in a healthy manner are disappearing, making it easier for them to be exploited.
Where do we go from here?
With so many of these incidents revolving around a drug or gang conflict, the question is posed as to whether we’re doing enough to tackle the issues at hand. Why do drug dealers or gangs feel they can get away with it? How can we support young people who are still in school and keep them away from falling into criminal activity? Calls are being made for police officers to be placed in some schools, in particular in the major cities, but with officers struggling to cope already, it’s unclear whether that will only add to the problem. Realistically, we need an injection of money into the necessary services and a revamp to the recruitment process for both practitioners and police officers. We need to increase the number of people defending those who are vulnerable to the influence of gangs, those who protect them from exploitation and a life of crime. An important action to take is also one of the easiest to take: get involved. Raise your voice about increasing funding to services in your area or restructuring protection teams. Speak out about the teenagers carrying knives in your area. Teenagers in London are riding their bikes together in protect of knife violence, under the slogan Knives Down, Bikes Up. Find your equivalent – a simple action that shows victims that the knife crime crisis will end, and also reaffirm the strength and solidarity of our communities.
Or perhaps Labour MP Vernon Coaker is right – maybe it’s time we treat knife crime with the same urgency as terrorism. It’s a crisis that is shaking our country’s foundations and risking the lives and safety of our citizens, especially innocent children. If that doesn’t require urgent attention, then what does?
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