Scotland Yard has come up with statistics which suggest that nearly half of those charged with knife killings in London in the past three years had previous weapons convictions.
Professor Stephen Case, Professor of Criminology at Loughborough University, reflects on the root causes of the problem.
Sputnik: Data from Scotland Yard has revealed that approximately half of all individuals charged with London knife killings over the past three years had previously committed an offence involving a blade. How significant are these new findings?
Stephen Case: For me, it tells us that knife crime is not being tackled in the right ways and that too much emphasis is being placed on the role of the police and the prison service, which is although very important, tend to deal with the problem once it’s manifested rather than attacking the root cause of the problem. It doesn’t surprise me that knife crime offenders reoffend once they’ve been arrested, once they’ve been imprisoned because by that stage the problem has exacerbated to a point that the police in the prison service can’t realistically be expected to deal with it on their own.
Sputnik: What does this tell us about our judicial and prison system? Are we releasing offenders too early from prison?
Stephen Case: Yes you could. We could certainly make the criminal justice system more effective and more efficient but it can’t work in isolation. It can’t solve long term social and personal problems that offenders come into contact with the police and the prison service with; but once they are identified, arrested processed when they get incarcerated we could probably be working more effectively with them in terms of rehabilitation and reform processes; education programs in prison, vocational training… all those kinds of things. There is an argument that the criminal justice system releases imprisoned offenders too early and for a variety of reasons such as space, financial, exact natures of their offences but you could argue that one of the problems with that is the prison service itself doesn’t have enough time to work with these people in order to address the root causes of the problems. We’re just really sort of processing prisoners through a system; arguably getting them through the system as quickly as possible in some cases and releasing them too early without having to have the time to do any meaningful work with them. You’ve also got an argument with the prison service that is so overstretched and overcrowded that prisons and prison officers don’t have the resources, not just the time but the actual resources, physical resources to work in any meaningful ways with the people that come into contact with them. So the criminal justice system could be helped to work more effectively and more efficiently through a more appropriate sentencing and more meaningful work in prisons but it cannot do this in isolation as I say.
Sputnik: Looking at these figures is prison actually stopping these offenders from committing similar future crimes? Could we see new approaches being taken to tackle knife crime, and if so what could these measures look like?
Stephen Case: Might be part of the answer. I think it’s a bit of a misconception that prison doesn’t work necessarily and a lot of critical academics would say that prison doesn’t work. You certainly can say that prison isn’t working for everybody. There will be examples of programs in prisons that have the capacity and the staff and the space to be able to work in effective ways with prisoners in their care; education programs, cognitive behavioural programs, restorative justice and anger management, vocational training, numeracy, literacy etc. all these kinds of issues that are problematic for violent offenders in the real world that will give them more resilience and may promote more positive outcomes upon their release. But by and large, it’s almost impossible for prisons to be universally effective because they haven’t got the time, capacity, or even expertise to deal with the complexity of the problems that the prisoners that are coming into contact with them are carrying into prison.