We are all aware of the high-profile attention paid to youth violence in recent years: it is fair to say that there has been a media frenzy, particularly with regard to knife crime involving young adults, whether the statistical variations have warranted this or not.
We could debate just how serious the problem is and whether it has grown under Labour, or acknowledge that every young person who is a victim of violence has been failed, and that the small minority of young people committing such acts have probably been failed in some part of their lives, initiating the fall into crime.
We know that violent crime has fallen to around half the level of the 1995 peak, but also that knife homicides have increased under Labour along with a decrease in the median age of knife victims. The government has responded with new legislation, sentencing guidelines and in particular with its Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP), but we must now ask what direction future policy will take with regard to tackling youth violence on the whole, whilst allaying the public’s concern.
Critics of the government’s actions so far regard it as headline-chasing; crawling to the tabloids with impulsive initiatives and strong words for the voters. Evidence indeed shows that increasing jail sentences has no effect on offending, and the dramatic increase in the use of stop and search raises questions about civil liberties, not to mention further mistrust and disenchantment in those who are unfairly targeted.
During the election there is a real danger that the government will avoid any discussion of bold new strategies, instead staying close to quasi-Tory lines akin to “lock any adolescent up who chooses to carry a knife”.
But this is yet another area where we need to clearly differentiate ourselves by offering more intelligent analysis and solutions to the electorate. Whilst still enforcing the message that carrying a knife is totally unacceptable, we must find other ways to change behaviour, knowing that jail terms are ineffective and often lead to an increase in criminality. If jail was the answer to the problem of youth violence then things should have improved given that we now lock up around 4,000 children a year; the highest rate in the western world.
Like the treatment of any disease, the next phase of policy must focus on true prevention through engagement at an early age. As well as education in the real cost of violence, this means ideas such as courses in behaviour and anger management, work with parents, teachers and other ‘credible messengers’ to dispel positive images of gang membership and the myth that carrying a knife offers any sort of protection. It will also require further improvements in our education system in a drive towards inclusivity and relevance. There are already many successful community projects in action and part of this strategy must be to educate the public on the difference they make.
The root causes of youth crime lie across the policy spectrum: education failures, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, poor parenting and family breakdown. The solutions are therefore attuned with Labour’s drive towards fairness and opportunity for all. We can already find fault in the Tories’ opposition to the school leavers’ guarantee, but we must further develop policy to give those young people at risk of committing violent crime a sense of purpose and self-respect, and a belief in Britain as a true meritocracy.