“My son carried a knife – because he lived in fear”: why these new Asbos miss the point

“Time and time again he’d come home, he’d been attacked, he’d been robbed.”

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Knife crime prevention orders, the government’s new measure to tackle youth violence, miss the point, according to crime experts.

Not only could they cause more crime by imposing jail sentences and criminalising more young people, as my colleague Stephen explains, but they also ignore the underlying reasons behind young people carrying knives in the first place.

Young people are less likely to fear being slapped with these new orders (like curfews, social media bans and restrictions from specific streets) than being attacked, says Dr Suzella Palmer, a criminologist at the University of Bedfordshire who specialises in gangs, youth violence, and young black males and crime.

“The overwhelming evidence tells us that most young people are carrying them because they feel unsafe,” she finds, likening the Home Office’s new system to the notoriously ineffective anti-social behaviour orders, or Asbos.

“Criminalising them for that I think is not helpful. It’s not going to prevent it… Young people who are in fear of their lives, in fear of their safety, their physical safety, are going to be less fearful of an Asbo.”

Dr Palmer’s own son, who is now 27, carried a knife where he grew up in London from the age of 14, and was convicted, aged 15, for violent disorder in a court case with 21 young people via joint enterprise, a rule that allows several people to be charged with a crime when they are not the primary offenders. Despite detaching himself from gangs and turning his life around since then, he continued carrying a knife until last year to and from work as he was so concerned for his safety.

“Because of where we were living, and the fact he’d been involved with a gang and the lifestyle, he still carried a knife,” she tells me. “He’d made a few enemies out there and he’d been attacked so many times. So he wasn’t being paranoid – the reality was he was likely to be victimised.”

Her son only began carrying a knife at such a young age because he’d been attacked by a group of young people who took his phone and other possessions.

“Time and time again he’d come home, he’d been attacked, he’d been robbed,” she tells me. “He could get attacked at any time. It’s that volatile, for many of our young people out there… I can’t make him safe out there. The solution for him is to just avoid certain places. He’s finding it really hard.”

Dr Palmer urges the government to invest instead in youth services, which can provide on the ground support workers and peer mentors to help engage with those involved in youth crime and gangs.

More than 600 youth centres have closed in Britain since 2010, with losses amounting to 139,000 youth places and 3,650 staff. Council funding for frontline youth services across the UK has been halved since 2010. These are places where the causes of crime can be prevented, tempered, or at least discussed. Whacking prison sentences on young people is a false economy that misunderstands the underlying causes of knife crime. 

We looked in depth at this problem last year by visiting youth services in Tottenham, as part of the New Statesman’s Crumbling Britain austerity series here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.