Contemporary sociology: how should we tackle the increase in knife crime?

knife crime in London seems to be increasing rapidly, but how would left and right realists tackle this? Or is this all just a moral panic?

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According to a recent BBC news article, London’s murder rate is increasing rapidly, so rapidly in fact that it’s just overtaken the murder in New York’s, a city historically notorious for its problems with violent crime.

Murder London

So is this just a moral panic, or is this recent increase in violent crime something we should be taking seriously?

What are the recent statistics?

So far in 2018 the MET police have investigated 46 murders, and the rate seems to be increasing alarmingly:

    • 8  murders were investigated in January
    • 15 murders were investigated in February
    • 22 murders were investigated in March.

Of the 44 murder investigations so far launched by the MET in 2018, 31 have been the results of stabbings.

So is this just a moral panic?

Focusing just on knife crime here, because this is the implement used in nearly 3/4s of all murders, the short answer is, probably not….

This recent increase seems to be in the context of a longer term increase in knife crime…

knife crime statistics

Although London’s knife crime rate is twice the national average…

Knife crime London

So while there does seem to be an issue with London’s knife crime rate increasing (rapidly!) this may not be representative of the country as a whole!

What’s causing this increase in Knife crime and murder?

A lot of the debate has focused on the fact that the police are stopping and searching fewer people. Police have become more withdrawn and are less pro-active in preventing crime through the use of stop and search:

stop search
Source: Ministry of Justice/ BBC

There is anecdotal evidence from the police that this has led to an increase in knife crime because young people are now more inclined to carry knives because they know they are less likely to be stopped and searched.

(Ironically it was Theresa May who oversaw this reduction as home secretary, partly responding to fears that the disproportionate use of stop and search against young black men was alienating huge numbers of people.)

Interestingly, knife crime is increasing despite a stiffening of penalties for possessing an offensive weapon:

Knife crime punisment
Source: Ministry of Justice/ BBC

You’re significantly more likely to get a custodial sentence today than compared to 2009, but this doesn’t seem to be putting people off carrying or using knives. I guess the ‘less likely to get caught’ outweighs the ‘likeliness of a stiff penalty’ or the ‘risk of being a victim if I don’t carry one’ factors in the cost-benefit calculation.

Right realists would agree with this approach – of increasing stop and search, of going back to a more random stop and search strategy.

Do we need a public health approach to reducing knife crime?

Labour MPs Sarah Jones (chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime) and Dianne Abbott (both speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme), have both suggested that London needs to adopting a public health approach to reducing Knife crime – which means, for example:

  • engaging in major intervention work with youth workers
  • going into schools, changing the social norms, educating kids, teaching them what it is to be a man, teaching them how they don’t need to carry knives.
  • Working with mental health charities

Both point to case studies of New York and Glasgow, where such interventions have been adopted with both seeing significant reductions in violent crime (while at the same time also having a lighter touch approach to stop and search.

These policies are very left realist in nature – and both of the above MPs are skeptical about the usefulness of increasing the role of random stop and search – pointing out the toxic legacy it leaves in terms of police-community relations.

Selected sources 

Crime in England and Wales: Year Ending 2017

London murder rate overtakes New York’s (BBC)

Nine charts on the rise of knife crime in England and Wales (BBC)

Relevance to A-level sociology

Knife crime and other violent crimes seem to be increasing recently in England and Wales, so this topic is of continued relevance within the crime and deviance module.

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Official Statistics on Ethnicity and Crime

Unlike with social class, the home office does record explicit data based on the ethnic backgrounds of those stopped and searched, arrested and imprisoned. There are a lot of different official statistics on ethnicity and crime, reflecting the different stages of the criminalisation process: 

  1. Stop and search stats
  2. Arrest statistics
  3. Penalty order notices and cautions
  4. Those who are subject to court proceedings
  5. Those convicted in court
  6. Those sent to jail from court
  7. Prison statistics (those in jail) (not shown in the table below)

ethnicity-and-crime

Of course in order to be properly comparative, we need to look at the numbers from each ethnic group at each stage in proportion to the overall numbers of each ethnic group in the population as a whole, as the table above does.

Official Statistics on Ethnicity and Crime – The Most Obvious Differences between Ethnic Groups… 

Proportionate to the overall numbers in the adult population as a whole…

  • Black people are approximately SIX times more likely to be stopped and searched and SIX times more likely to be sent to jail;
  • Asian people are THREE times more likely to be stopped and searched than White people, but have a similar chance of being sent to jail.

The rest of this post provides a little more detail on how the stats vary at different stages of the criminalisation process. 

Stop and Search Statistics by Ethnicity

According to this BBC summary (2013) The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said in some areas black people were 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. The commission said the disproportion between different ethnic groups remained “stubbornly high”.

The highest “disproportionality” ratios were found in the following places:

  • In Dorset black people were 11.7 times more likely than white people to be stopped
  • In West Mercia, Asian people were 3.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped
  • In Warwickshire, people of mixed race were 4.4 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched.

The report also looked at the use of Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act under which police can stop and search someone for weapons, without suspicion that the individual is involved in wrongdoing, providing that a senior officer has a reasonable belief that violence had or is about to occur.

stop and search.jpg

Under section 60, In the West Midlands, black people were 29 times more likely than white people to be targeted and Asian people were six times more likely than white people to be targeted, which is what the above spoof advert mush be drawing on.

EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond said “the overall disproportionality in the use of the powers against black, Asian and mixed race people remains stubbornly high.”

Prosecution and trial statistics 

The Crown Prosecution service (CPS) is responsible for deciding whether a crime or arrest should be prosecuted in court. They base it on whether there is any real chance of the prosecution succeeding and whether it is better for the public that they are prosecuted.

Ethnic minority cases are more likely to be dropped than whites, and blacks and Asians are less likely to be found guilty than whites. Bowling and Phillips (2002) argue that this is because there is never enough evidence to prosecute as it is mainly based on racist stereotyping. In 2006/7 60% of whites were found guilty, against only 52% of blacks, and 44% of Asians.

When cases go ahead members of ethnic minorities are more likely to elect for Crown Court trail rather than magistrates (even through Crown Courts can hand out more severe punishments), potentially because of a mistrust of magistrates.

Sentencing and prison statistics

Jail sentences are more likely to be given to Blacks (68%) compared to Whites (55%) or Asians (59%), whereas Whites and Asians were more likely to receive community services. But this could be due to the seriousness of some ones offence of previous convictions.

Hood (1992) found that even when the seriousness of an offence and previous convictions were taken into account Black men were 5x more likely to be jailed and given a sentence which is 3 months (Asians 9 months) longer than whites.

The current actual prison statistics broken down by ethnicity look something like this:

ethnicity-prison-uk

Victim surveys

The British Crime Survey indicated that 44 per cent of victims were able to say something about the offender who was involved in offences against them. Among these, 85 per cent of offenders were said by victims to be ‘white’, 5 per cent ‘black’, 3 per cent ‘Asian’ and 4 per cent ‘mixed’. However, these stats are only for the minority of ‘contact’ offences and very few people have any idea who was involved in the most common offences such as vehicle crime and burglary. Therefore, in the vast majority of offences no reliable information is available from victims about the ethnicity of the criminal.

Self-report studies

Though not ‘official statistics’ because they’re not done by the government routinely, it’s interesting to contrast the above stats to this alternative way of measuring crime. Self-report studies ask people to disclose details of crimes they committed but not necessarily been caught doing or convicted of. Graham and Bowling (1995) Found that blacks (43%) and whites (44%) had similar and almost identical rates of crime, but Asians actually had lower rates (Indians- 30%, Pakistanis-28% and Bangladeshi-13%).

Sharp and Budd (2005) noted that the 2003 offending, crime and justice survey of 12,000 people found that whites and mixed ethnicity were more likely to say they had committed a crime, followed by blacks (28%) and Asians (21%).