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According to ONS data, there were a total of 18,627 offences of knife crime in England and Wales in 2021. So far in 2022, there have been almost 1,000 more – even with the year not having yet ended. Over the last decade, the worst year for knife crime was 2019 when there were 22,183 offences. It could be said that the slight decreases in 2020 and 2021 were due to lockdowns. Of the 18,627 offences in 2021, 6,079 resulted in immediate custody.
In terms of homicide with a sharp instrument, data has been collected since 1977 by the Home Office. In 2021, there were 224 homicides caused by a sharp instrument. This includes knives as well as things like broken bottles.
Knife crime seems to be a problem among young people, particularly those of disadvantaged backgrounds. Of all the offences in 2018, 21% of the offenders were aged between 10 and 17.
This article will outline all of the details about what we mean by knife crime, what the law says, the penalties, the causes and what we can do to try and resolve the issue.
What is knife crime?
Simply put, knife crime is crime involving knives. It could be a bladed or another sharp instrument. This type of crime affects disadvantaged and young people disproportionately.
Knife crime encompasses the following:
- Carrying a knife.
- Threatening another person with a knife or bladed object.
- Owning a type of knife that is banned.
- Trying to buy knives under the age of 18.
- Injuring another person with a knife or bladed object.
- Fatally wounding someone with a knife or bladed object.
- Intending to harm or injure someone with a knife or bladed object.
- Committing burglary or robbery while carrying a knife as a weapon.
A knife is classed as an offensive weapon. Other examples of offensive weapons include any article that is designed to injure another person, any article that is deliberately carried by someone intending to use it to injure another person or a harmful substance like acid that can burn skin.
What is the law on knife crime?
It is illegal to possess a knife in a public place. Just carrying a knife somewhere in public like a school or supermarket can lead to a maximum conviction of four years in prison. If someone is found to be carrying a knife and has already been caught doing so before, the minimum sentence is six months in prison just for possession.
When a person commits an offence with a knife and uses it to commit a crime whether to induce fear in a street robbery or by actually harming someone, the punishments are more severe and more life-changing.
Using a bladed instrument like a knife can lead to a range of charges, depending on individual circumstances and resulting injuries.
Some of the possible charges include:
- Section 18 causing GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm) with intent.
- Attempted murder.
These offences often lead to multiple years in prison. Being charged with murder comes with a mandatory life sentence. An offender can also receive a life sentence for a Section 18 grievous bodily harm offence.
A person can also be prosecuted under a law called ‘joint enterprise’ if they were present when someone was killed or injured by a knife. This means the person is seen as being guilty of someone’s death because they were part of it, encouraged it, or didn’t try to stop it from happening.
Examples of a murder conviction under joint enterprise include:
- Being part of a group and a group member kills someone using an offensive weapon.
- Supporting an attacker’s actions by physically being a supportive presence or by verbally encouraging them.
- Knowing that someone was going to do something violent against someone else and doing nothing about it.
What the law says
Here are some finer details of the UK law on knives and knife crime.
- It is against the law for any person to sell any kind of knife to someone under 18. This could be a shop selling cutlery or a kitchen knife.
- You cannot buy knives if you are under 18.
- Any person over the age of 10 can be charged if they are caught carrying an illegal knife, even if they have never been caught before.
- Anyone caught carrying a knife could be imprisoned or receive a fine or a community sentence.
- If the police believe you’re carrying a knife, you can be searched.
- Even when someone is carrying a legal knife (like a legal penknife), the knife is classed as illegal if it is used to threaten or harm anyone.
- You need to have a good reason for carrying a knife in a public place.
- If you are 16 or 17 years old and have already been convicted of carrying a knife in the past, a second conviction means an automatic detention and training order lasting a minimum of four months.
What are the penalties for knife crime?
When an adult is caught carrying a weapon or knife, they can be charged an unlimited fine and can be sent to prison for up to four years. There is always a prison sentence for repeat offenders.
When someone threatens another person with a knife, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of six months and a maximum of four years.
Sentences for knife crime are calculated by assessing harm and culpability. Harm describes the risk or damage to the victims. It is considered to be more harmful to be armed with a knife in a place like a care home or a school as this could cause greater harm.
As for culpability, sentences are more lenient when there are mitigating factors such as:
- The person has no prior convictions.
- The person has a serious medical condition that requires intensive, long-term, or urgent treatment.
- The person is immature or young.
- The person has a learning disability or mental disorder.
- The person has dependants and is the sole carer.
- The person has cooperated fully with the police.
A guilty plea also reduces the sentence in many cases.
There are also aggravating factors to consider and these generally increase the sentence received.
These include things like:
- An attack being motivated by or being the result of hostility towards a person because of their religion, race, sexual orientation or identity, or disability.
- A group act.
- Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In 2020, the Home Office introduced KCPOs, or Knife Crime Prevention Orders. These were introduced via the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 as an additional police tool to steer people away from violent crime.
KCPOs can be issued to anyone over the age of 12 who police believe to be carrying knives regularly. They can also be issued to anyone when they commit a knife-related offence. These orders are designed to be preventative and deter knife crime. When someone has a KCPO, they can be prevented from associating with people and from going into certain areas. They can also be given a curfew.
What knives are banned in the UK?
There is an absolute ban on selling offensive weapons in the UK. This also includes certain knives. There is a list of knives that are illegal to possess, bring into the UK, sell, hire, lend or gift. There are, however, some exemptions. Weapons and knives that are over 100 years old are exempt (except flick knives).
Here is a list of banned knives in the UK:
- A belt-buckle knife (a belt that conceals a knife in the buckle).
- A ‘balisong’ or butterfly knife (a blade that is enclosed within a handle).
- A spiral knife or cyclone (a blade with a sharp point, a handle, and a cutting edge that form the shape of a helix).
- A disguised knife (one that is hidden inside an everyday object like a phone, lipstick, key, cigarette lighter, pen, brush or comb).
- A flick knife/gravity knife/automatic knife/switchblade (the blade is released either automatically, by gravity, or by pressing a button).
- Handclaws/footclaws (metal bars strapped to the hand or foot with sharp spikes).
- A hollow kubotan (a cylinder-shaped long container that contains sharp spikes).
- A knuckleduster (a band of material, usually metal, which is worn on the fingers to cause injury).
- A kusarigama (a roped or chained sickle).
- A kyoketsu shoge (a roped or chained hook-knife).
- A push dagger (a knife whose handle fits in a closed fist with the blade protruding between the fingers).
- A shuriken (a hard plate that has 3+ radiating points that is designed for throwing). It is also called a throwing star, death star or a shaken.
- A stealth knife (a spike or knife constructed out of material that can’t be detected by a metal detector and whose purpose is not a toy, for food or for home use).
- A sword (a 50cm+ curved blade).
- A swordstick (a walking stick that’s hollow and contains a blade inside).
- A zombie knife (a knife that has a serrated edge, a cutting edge, and words or images suggesting its intended use is for violence).
Why does knife crime happen?
There are many reasons why knife crime happens.
Let’s take a look at some of the influential factors:
1. Children who grow up in toxic environments
Knife crime is rife among young people who have grown up in a toxic environment and when their carers have failed to nurture, protect and help them achieve. A toxic environment often leaves young people fearful, vengeful and disaffected. Being fearful means they’re keen to carry a knife, join a gang and commit acts of violence. The majority of knife crime occurs in areas that are suffering from disinvestment and social disadvantage.
Children who are poor attainers or missing from education are at a greater risk.
We can link the rise in knife crime to austerity measures. Since 2010, there have been thousands of youth service jobs lost and hundreds of youth centres closed. This has resulted in young people not having guidance and support.
2. Young people fear becoming a victim of a crime
Many young people who carry knives do so for protection. Lots of children will say they carry knives because they have been threatened or attacked in the past.
3. Young people don’t trust the police or the authorities to provide protection
Many young people do not trust the police, especially when they live in an area of high crime that isn’t being resolved. There is a huge factor of institutional racism that is prevalent too.
When crimes aren’t solved, people are more willing to protect themselves and bypass the police. The police rely heavily on the public cooperating.
There has been a reduction in the number of police officers and detectives, which means the authorities are stretched.
How to help stop knife crime
There is no quick fix to stop knife crime and many approaches are being used. Here are some of the practices currently in place.
One of the best approaches that is being used to reduce knife crime is an approach called ‘pulling levers’. The strategies target repeat and prolific offenders and combine strict enforcement with better support. There is a range of agencies involved, including law enforcement, practitioners based in the community, and social services.
Early intervention programmes
There are programmes specifically targeted at young people and children from the age of 8.
- Child skills training, a programme that teaches children emotional and social skills, anger management and problem solving.
- Mentoring – role models and emotional support.
- Behavioural parent training – to help parents with the reinforcement of good behaviour.
- Recreational activities after school – a supervised and structured environment that teaches skills.
Evidence suggests that restorative justice conferences can have a significant effect. They have shown that victims are much less likely to try and seek revenge against an offender. A restorative justice conference means victims and offenders have a meeting with a view to reducing reoffending. Sometimes members of a victim’s family or of the community attend the meeting too.
There have been several large-scale and small-scale knife amnesties in the UK. A knife amnesty means people can hand in a weapon without repercussions. Schemes like Word 4 Weapons and Bin a Blade allow people to dispose of knives while also raising awareness of the potential dangers of carrying knives.
The idea of knife amnesties means that there are fewer blades on the streets. However, its impact is often short term and limited.
Stop and search
Stop and search is a power that police officers have to help reduce knife crime.
This works in two ways:
- Deterring people from carrying a weapon because they can be stopped, searched and convicted.
- Weapons are detected and removed.
One of the most obvious ways of tackling knife crime is to sentence it harshly. Despite the increases in sentence severity, many people continue to use and carry knives.
Final thoughts on ‘What is knife crime?’
Knife crime is a huge problem in the UK and is growing. Both the perpetrators and victims of knife crime are most likely to be adolescent males. The risk factors for weapon carrying and violence include poor attainment and adverse childhood experiences.
The most successful solutions for reducing knife crime include a multi-agency approach with a range of intervention programmes for those groups most at risk.