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A public health approach is key to knife crime reduction

Ellis Coughlan
October 13, 2023

Last month, the stabbing of a 15-year-old girl in Croydon shook the nation. Despite the Conservatives’ advocacy for stringent sentencing and enhanced police powers, knife crime has increased since 2010. Tough-on-crime measures alone fall short in addressing this pressing issue.

In August, Croydon witnessed 32 knife attacks, the highest level in five years. Nevertheless, the government lacks a comprehensive plan to deal with this epidemic.

Relying solely on get-tough approaches has little benefit in the long-term. While stringent sentencing maintains deterrence and incapacitates offenders, it fails to address the underlying causes of knife crime.

Research has shown that countries with less punitive criminal justice systems often have similar or lower crime rates than those with harsher policies. Furthermore, the National Research Council’s 2014 report on US incarceration found that harsh sentencing policies in the US had neither a consistent nor a substantial effect on violent crime rates.

A punitive approach fails to confront the underlying causes of violent crime. To mitigate the factors that can lead individuals towards engaging in criminal behaviour, it is imperative that we proactively address several critical challenges. These include poverty and inequality, a lack of opportunities, mental health issues, and the pervasive problems associated with substance abuse.

A punitive approach fails to confront the underlying causes of violent crime. Quote

Overly aggressive law enforcement measures can lead to mistrust and alienation within communities, particularly marginalised neighbourhoods. This hinders cooperation with law enforcement and exacerbates tensions. For example, stop and search powers in the UK disproportionately impact ethnic minorities, particularly black men. Concerns about racial profiling and protests calling for reform demonstrate the resulting tensions with law enforcement.

Additionally, the criminalisation of young individuals who make impulsive decisions has long term consequences on their education and employment opportunities. Criminalisation results in stigmatisation and social isolation while incarceration can push young people into criminal networks. The combination of limited employment opportunities, social stigma, and a lack of support make it more likely for young individuals with criminal records to reoffend. This contributes to the revolving door of the criminal justice system.

It's no wonder recidivism rates in the UK are so high. Too little is done to prevent offences by individuals who return to similar conditions upon release. Ex-convicts often struggle to find housing or stable employment, and they seldom have adequate education or skills training.

An innovative approach is imperative. The adoption of a public health oriented approach in combating violent crime has demonstrated encouraging outcomes in Glasgow, Chicago, Los Angeles, Northern Ireland, Colombia, and Brazil. Such an approach has the potential to significantly curtail knife-related offences within London and across the UK.

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Public health approaches recognise that violent crime is a symptom of deeper social and economic issues. Proactively addressing the root causes and intervening early with at risk individuals can prevent initial criminal involvement. Employing data-driven tactics aids in understanding the patterns and causes of violence, allowing for tailored interventions in specific communities.

Critically, alternatives to violence such as youth centres and sports clubs must be provided. A lack of third spaces, locations beyond the home and work, can lead to gang affiliation as youths with limited opportunities for positive social engagement are susceptible to the allure of gangs for a sense of belonging and purpose.

Providing rehabilitation for offenders and support for victims is also important in preventing the cycle of revenge. By engaging with local communities and empowering them to take an active role in violence prevention, law enforcement can foster trust and encourage cooperation.

Not too long ago, Glasgow was known as the murder capital of Europe and had the highest homicide rate in the developed world. By taking a public health approach, the frequency of incidents involving an offensive weapon in Scotland fell by 69 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

The Violence Reduction Unit, established in 2005, treated violence as a disease. They focused on early intervention, support for individuals at risk, and community engagement.

Diversion programmes kept young people away from the criminal justice system, providing alternatives to prosecution such as counselling, education, and employment opportunities. Educational programmes raised awareness about the dangers of knife crime. Hospitals adopted a “No knives, better lives” programme, where healthcare professionals engaged with victims to break the cycle of retaliation. Together, these efforts worked in unison to create a comprehensive strategy for addressing knife crime.

By collaborating with law enforcement, health services, local government, schools, and community groups, the key drivers of violent crime were addressed, and support was given to those at risk.

Fortunately, there is room for optimism. In a speech reminiscent of Tony Blair’s 1997 commitment to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, Labour Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper announced "Young Futures". The cross-government initiative takes inspiration from Glasgow, aiming to unite services through a network of hubs in different areas and target at-risk individuals.

As knife crime continues to pose an existential challenge, the next government must adopt a holistic approach if they are to effectively tackle this multifaceted issue.

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Ellis Coughlan is a Political and Media Consultant at Bridgehead Communications. 

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