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31 January 2019

We know that prisons are universities of crime. So why send more people there?

Sajid Javid’s new measures to tackle knife crime may make the problem worse not better.

By Stephen Bush

The most successful skills training the British government provides occur in the prisons of England and Wales. Unfortunately, the upskilling that occurs doesn’t provide inmates with qualifications so they can turn away from crime once they leave, but turns shoplifters and petty criminals into drug dealers and bagmen.

That’s part of the problem with knife crime prevention orders, the new measure to tackle knife crime among the under-18s announced today by Sajid Javid. The orders, which can be issued when a court feels that someone has done something “on the balance of probabilities”, rather than the higher evidential threshold of beyond reasonable doubt, can restrict teenagers from a variety of activities, including visiting certain areas, people or websites; if breached, they carry a jail sentence of up to two years.

It adds to the ever-growing thicket of police powers which allow them to seek a lower evidential threshold than beyond reasonable doubt, which now includes civil injunctions (asbos in old money), community protective notices, criminal behaviour orders, sexual harassment orders, gang injunctions, and serious crime orders, though it is not in practice clear when a knife crime prevention order could be applied when a civil injunction couldn’t be, as they can already be applied to juveniles.

But the worrying thing here in particular is that it puts further emphasis on short-term jail sentences: an approach we already know is not currently fit for purpose and badly needs reform. That’s something that this government’s own Secretary of State for Justice, David Gauke, has recognised and is gradually putting to right, albeit with every positive announcement and change quietly filtered out during holidays and busy periods to avoid being monstered in the right-wing press.

We know that short-term sentences don’t keep criminals off the streets for very long and they don’t help with rehabilitation: they just provided accelerated degree courses in crime. While that problem remains unresolved, sending more young people into that system will make the problem worse, not better.

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