Young people, violence and knives - revisiting the evidence

Roger Grimshaw and Matt Ford
Tuesday, 27 November 2018

After a relatively silent period of almost ten years, ‘knife crime’ has re-entered public awareness and policy discussion.

Our new report builds on a CCJS evidence review published in 2009, based on work for the Children’s Commissioner. We examine recent trends, consider the drivers of interpersonal violence, and assess the results of criminal justice interventions, before examining how far strategic interventions grouped under the public health flag have succeeded, and what future policy directions should now be considered.

Statistical trends for England and Wales

The most reliable sources for significant injury are the hospital statistics. Admissions to hospital for assault by sharp instrument have increased 22 per cent since 2014/2015, reversing a declining trend which began in 2007/2008. More proactive policing practices in response to rises in knife crime are likely to have driven increases in recorded possession offences. Self-report data on weapon carrying is equivocal about whether more young people are carrying knives or not.

Drivers of violence

The total number of young men - a group typically associated with violence – has not increased significantly, though some vulnerable subgroups, such as children in care, have experienced rises. Social inequality and deprivation are associated with higher rates of violence. Deteriorations in mental health as a result of abuse, exacerbated by the effect of cycles of vengeance, accelerate violence. Coordinated drug-dealing (so-called ‘county lines’) is seen as fuelling violence, though drugs policy has been criticised for failing to tackle the risks of demand and supply from a secure evidence base.

Criminal justice interventions

Stop and search numbers have declined over the last few years but evidence shows that their impact on crime levels is marginal at best, while alienating minority ethnic communities that are disproportionately affected. Since 2013 an increasing number of knife and offensive weapon possession offences have resulted in a sentence of immediate custody. Knife and offensive weapon possession offences resulting in prison sentences of more than six months have consistently increased since 2009. It is not clear that a general increase in punitiveness has had a deterrent effect on levels of knife carrying.

Strategic interventions: towards a ‘public health’ approach

The World Health Organization supports a public health approach to violence reduction, comprising universal interventions for whole populations, secondary interventions for those at risk, and tertiary ones for those already engaged in violence.

Research continues to find evidence of impactful programmes for populations and individuals at risk.

There is general support from the police, the Mayor of London, and from civil society campaigners for a ‘public health’ approach to tackling knife crime.

Public health approaches have been a part of government policy for several years, but slow implementation and funding cuts have affected delivery. The Serious Violence Strategy published in 2018 will fund a number of programmes, including early intervention and action on ‘county lines’ drug dealing, but the scale and scope of investment has been questioned by local government and public health organisations.

What a ‘public health’ approach to knife crime involves depends on choices about the management and focus of programmes. Usually the programmes offer services to young people in order to persuade them to stop violent behaviour.

Focused deterrence approaches also emphasise the importance of warnings and prompt action against a group. Typically the approach relies on police leadership. Research has suggested this method has an impact on violence but a pilot project in London failed amidst controversy about the police’s ‘anti-gang’ strategy. The Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland had adopted a similar approach, but with more encouraging results. John Carnochan former detective chief superintendent in Strathclyde police and co-founder of the Violence Reduction Unit said,

You can trace a line of inequality through the communities that the crime gangs operate in. If you are a young man who knows he has no future in work but everywhere sees evidence of grossly conspicuous consumption, then of course he wants some of that for himself.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said,

The public health approach is well evidenced in Scotland. There are very different communities, very different dynamics and very different issues around violence and, indeed, youth violence but, nevertheless, there have been massive reductions in violent crime through a primary health lens.

As a whole, Scotland has seen a long trend towards violence reduction; claims about the ‘success’ of its Violence Reduction Unit should be placed in this context.

The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence in Glasgow had an impact upon weapon-carrying among young people engaged by the project. However, other factors should be noted.

While police tactics are unlikely to have had an impact, rates of stop and search in the Strathclyde police area were higher than in England when offences began to decline. Also, fewer young people were passing through the Scottish criminal justice system.

The application and implementation of focused deterrence programmes is far from straightforward and from experience it does not appear that their model of group deterrence is readily transferable or necessarily fair.

Instead of deterrent messages from police, a Violence Prevention approach concentrates on deploying workers from communities affected. The evidence of its impacts is mixed but its approach to working with communities deserves positive attention.

In sum, the evidence is mounting that programmes of violence prevention can work effectively, provided that they begin to address fundamental drivers such as inequality, drugs policy and mental health, but the prospects for working successfully with young people close to or engaged in violence will depend on enhanced community involvement and leadership which learns the chequered lessons from previous projects.

Roger Grimshaw is Research Director and Matt Ford is Research Analyst at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies