How knife Asbos will harm, not help, young people

New government legislation will exacerbate the fraught relationship between young people and police. 

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Corey Junior Davis was a black teenager who was convicted of carrying a knife and suspected of dealing drugs. He was shot dead in 2017 aged 14 in a street in north-east London.

Davis was typical of the boys involved in serious youth violence: he was known to the police, supervised by the Youth Offending Team, and on and off the books of children’s services.

But his underlying needs were never addressed. Davis suffered from ADHD, placed in a pupil referral unit at secondary school, and was exploited by peers who were embroiled in crime. His mother requested the family be rehoused, but her cries fell on deaf ears.

Rather than tackle the problems that led to Davis’ tragic death, the current knife crime legislation, introduced yesterday by Home Secretary Sajid Javid, would have done little to prevent Davis’s downward spiral. Like many of those suspected of carrying knives, Davis’s issues were complex.

As John Sutherland, former senior commander in the Met Police, put it when responding to the new knife crime legislation: “police enforcement alone is not the long-term solution to knife crime”.

The new knife crime prevention orders, which have been likened to the Anti-social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) instigated by New Labour, will be applied to children as young as 12. The proposed legislation, which will enable officers to place a civil order on children and adults suspected of carrying a knife, gives courts carte blanche to restrict activities like social media use and socialising with friends. Breaking the order can carry imprisonment for up to two years.

This means a teenager who is merely suspected of carrying a knife could be imprisoned for using social media without ever having been convicted of a knife-related crime.

The idea for knife crime prevention orders has received backing from chief superintendent Ade Adelekan, who is in charge of London’s serious violence taskforce. Adelekan despaired at the force’s inability to tackle knife crime, and felt the new law would help.

But the police already have ample powers to charge those they catch in possession of knives. As Sutherland described, “the police don’t need more powers, they need more officers”. And despite not consulting youth offending teams, social workers, or those who work with vulnerable teenagers (the Ministry of Justice was consulted but advised against the new law), the Home Office yesterday went ahead with Adelekan’s suggestion.

In a hurry to calm public anxiety around knife crime, the Home Office are using law enforcement to resolve a problem with deep social roots. Teenagers carry knives because they are afraid of their peers. Many vulnerable teenagers who carry knives are also coerced into doing so by adults.  

Rather than tackle the root causes of knife crime, giving officers greater power to punish without evidence will likely exacerbate an already fraught relationship between teenagers and police. People like Corey Junior Davis need protecting, not punishing.

Penelope Gibbs is the founder of Transform Justice, a charity that works to reduce child and youth imprisonment in the UK.

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