“At what point do we say that current policies around violent crime are not working?”
At the time of writing, over 60 people, mostly young black men, have been murdered in London in 2018.1See, for example, ‘London murder rates “stabilising”, says Met deputy’, BBC News, 15 May 2018.
If 60 people died in 60 separate terrorist attacks, then there would be a national outcry. If millionaires were being murdered at the rate of two a week, that would lead in the national press every day. But these are not terrorist outrages. The victims – and perpetrators – by and large do not reside in the richest streets of London. They live in parts of boroughs such as Hackney, Haringey and Lewisham.
Too many black kids are dying on the streets. Too many black kids are being caught up as perpetrators in violent attacks. In the past few years, brilliant and courageous community activists have proclaimed that Black Lives Matter. Yet, on the 25th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death, it is Nelson Mandela’s comments that come to mind. Having met his dignified and brave parents shortly after Stephen’s death, Mandela remarked that, too often, authorities regarded black lives as ‘cheap’.2Edward Pilkington, ‘Mandela meets family of London stabbing victim’, Guardian, 7 May 1993.
Is that not what we are seeing now? At what point do we say that current policies are not working and we must look afresh? How many more young men should I have to defend on murder charges? Will I have to go to another funeral of a client who himself ended up being stabbed? Have increased sentences for knife crime worked?3‘Repeat knife offenders face new minimum prison term’, Ministry of Justice press release, 3 July 2015.
Have decades of reliance on discriminatory stop-and-search practices worked?
Enough already. Policy is failing. If the makers of these policies had to come to court to persuade us of their effectiveness, their cases would be dismissed at half time and costs would be awarded against them for bringing forward such frivolous and vacuous ‘evidence’.
Alternatives exist, though. Glasgow pioneered a new method of dealing with violent behaviour in 2005 (that was soon expanded to the rest of Scotland), by which it is treated as a public health issue rather than just a criminal justice issue. After all, violence is a behaviour and it is the health sector that has experience in dealing with changing behaviour. As has been succinctly put, you cannot prosecute your way out of this crisis but you can try to prevent a knife being carried in the first place.4Adam Forrest, ‘There is a way to tackle London’s knife crime problem’, Vice.com, 12 January 2018.
The results can be amazing. In Glasgow, the murder rate has declined by 60 per cent. In the years 2011–16, not a single person under 20 was killed with a knife in the city.5Gary Younge and Caelainn Barr, ‘How Scotland reduced knife deaths among young people’, Guardian, 3 December 2017.
The concept of treating violence as a health issue comes in part from institutions such as the US-based voluntary organisation Cure Violence. It says that it stops the spread of violence using the methods and strategies associated with disease control
: detecting and interrupting conflicts; identifying and treating the highest-risk individuals; and changing social norms. According to Cure Violence, mental trauma from exposure to violence has been scientifically shown to increase a person’s risk of adopting violent behaviour themselves. Thus violent behaviour is transmitted and spread based on exposure, just like an epidemic disease. Academic evaluations of Cure Violence projects suggest that violence reduces by up to 70 per cent.
This, though, is only possible if the various state bodies work together with prevention as the number one focus. That means early intervention; looking at school exclusions; community leadership; and specialist training. Some cities in the US have invested in mentors who attend schools to teach children how to de-escalate disputes. Too often, a jibe on social media turns into an issue of respect, then into a street fight, and finally into a stabbing. We have to break the chain as soon as possible.
All of this requires investment, political will and new thinking. At the minute, it is easier to ignore the voiceless in our society (with Windrush and Grenfell providing further prime examples) or to respond with knee-jerk enforcement solutions6Lizzie Dearden, ‘Sadiq Khan to “significantly increase” stop and search in London’, Independent, 10 January 2018.
to satisfy the right-wing press. The alternative? Evidence-based policy in the criminal justice field – perhaps a first.