JUST the other day there was another London stabbing. It was in Islington, so Jeremy Corbyn may have heard about it. A mother whose infant son was asleep in a pushchair was stabbed after she refused to hand over her mobile phone. Initially, she had been asked for directions, but on giving a ‘no’ to the ‘give me your phone’ demand, the offender stabbed her in the thigh before scuttling away without the device that it was his inalienable right to possess. Staff at the hospital where the woman was treated said she was lucky that the knife missed an artery.
And so it goes on. Knife crime. Up six per cent in the UK in 2018 (more than 110 per day), and at its highest level since records began in 2008-9. Most of the time the debates seem to revolve around young black men mired in urban gang culture, drugs, police numbers, social deprivation. And lack of youth clubs. For most people, there is not nearly enough talk of that other part of deterrence: tougher sentencing. A couple of weeks ago a 19-year-old was convicted of stabbing a teenage promising footballer after he felt he was given ‘a dirty look’ in Brixton, south London. He was jailed for four years. Probably out soon then. Year after next? The victim sustained wounds to lung and liver and it is unclear whether he will now be able to play professionally. But never mind, the coward with the blade will be back on the streets, no longer detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, before he himself is out of his early twenties. On what planet, in what universe, is this justice?
In a few weeks, sentence is due to be passed on the perpetrators of an even more serious crime. This was a daylight knife attack outside a London Tube station which the young victim did not survive. Seventeen-year-old college student Malcolm Mide-Madariola was murdered with a hunting knife. He was unfortunate enough to be standing with a group with whom the murderer, also aged 17, and his 19-year-old accomplice wanted to pick a fight. The conviction for murder and possession of an offensive weapon could bring a life sentence. That could mean the killer is out on the streets again before he is 25. Sentencing is more often than not a joke. A sick one.
Do you remember when you first got wind of the idea that ‘life’, which you got for taking a life, didn’t actually mean ‘life’? That reaction of astonishment, youthful bafflement at the workings of the grown-up world that was meant to be just and sensible? Why even use the word? What was going on? Going to prison for fifteen years? Seven years? That wasn’t ‘life’, just a mockery. That wasn’t in any sense the proper retribution that a decent (and yes, caring) society has the right and the responsibility to exact upon a killer.
Some young men say they need to carry a knife for protection. They live on estates where criminality and drugs are rife and they feel perpetually unsafe. If the line is to be held (through education in schools and communities) that carrying a knife makes things more, not less, dangerous all round, then the government and justice system must do all it can to show that it too believes that line. One way of doing that is through sentencing guidelines. Hand-in-hand with Section 60 stop and search powers, there needs to be much a much stiffer penalty for being caught even in possession of any kind of offensive weapon (including the unspeakable acid). Never mind sentences in months. Utterly derisory. Never mind a maximum of four years (so out in a couple then?) Any takers for a mandatory fifteen years? With no chance of parole? When nothing else is working, how about a bit of shock and awe sentencing for once, even if it does make people at the Howard League for Penal Reform gasp in horror? Because maybe it would do some good, maybe there would be fewer young people being slaughtered by other young people in 21st century Britain.
Yes, I know the prisons are full. Well, build some more then. Yes, I know that prison officers have a difficult and dangerous enough job as it is without increasing the numbers of prisoners. So they need a pay rise, a pretty hefty one. That needs to come with conditions, though, namely much harsher sentencing for breaching security by bringing drugs and mobiles to inmates.
Fifteen years mandatory with no chance of parole for carrying a knife? Life meaning life? Build more prisons? Even now one can hear the tuts, see the eye-rolling about what liberals will see as extremist, draconian measures. That’s because they see every offender as a victim in one way or another. Victim of not having a loving home, enough food, a decent school, job prospects. All that may be true and it’s always been true. That’s why we reserve special respect and admiration for those who make a life for themselves when everything has been stacked against them. However, whatever sad and rotten start anyone gets in life, when you pick up a knife, when you stab someone, that is your choice. Yours alone. And it’s about time the law started to reflect how gravely and with what revulsion society at large views that decision.
Commentators may wish to explore what they feel is a complex picture, beyond cuts to police numbers, about why knife crime is on the rise. Of course, it is worth exploring: family breakdown, widespread fatherlessness and lack of male authority in boys’ lives, illiteracy and school exclusion. Those things need tackling. The principle remains, however, that society demands justice and at the moment there is no justice for victims of knife crime.
Lenient sentencing does not mean that there is a civilised, nuanced and caring approach which sees everything within some definition of social justice and the priority of rehabilitation. It means that we don’t really care. It’s usually the poor too, who take the rap for it all, living as they do on the wrong streets and on the wrong estates. One suspects that the poor above all would like to see the knife threateners and wounders and killers banged up for a heck of a lot longer. If we had the courage and resolve to do this, that would really be a way of saying how much we pay tribute to all those young men who don’t pick up a knife, but instead make positive choices for themselves. So not just more custodial sentencing for longer then but also more community services, youth clubs, sports centres, again things that have a proper call on the public purse.
Oh, and making sure children learn to read as early as possible, the best way of mitigating against a life of crime, knife or otherwise. A whole generation of Baby Boomer energy is out there waiting to be tapped, running reading groups and running sports sessions. Something else policy-wise for a Tory leadership hopeful to think about as well as meaningful, just, sentencing for the most heinous criminality.