Violent knife offending has tended to mirror trends in overall violent crime, which rose sharply in the 1970s and 1980s but has fallen since the mid-1990s. However, the number of knife homicides increased by over a quarter between 2005/06 and 2006/07; there also appeared to be a rise in other serious knife violence during this year. In addition, a 48% increase in stab-related hospital admissions between 1997/98 and 2006/07 may indicate that knives are being used to inflict more serious wounds.
As with overall violence, the majority of knife victims and perpetrators are young men in their late teens and early twenties. There is also a significant proportion of knife offending that is linked to domestic violence. However, the high levels of knife violence since 2006 appear to be the result of an increase in street violence between groups of young people who are sometimes referred to as 'gangs'. While rural areas have experienced a small increase in knife injuries, knife violence is concentrated in the deprived parts of big cities.
It is difficult to estimate how many young people carry knives but there are fears it is becoming 'normal' in some areas. Young people tend to carry pen knives or flick knives, but kitchen knives are more commonly used in stabbings. Most young people who carry knives say they do so for 'protection'; status and peer pressure are also factors. This perceived need for protection is compounded by the sense, reinforced by media coverage of stabbings, that everyone else is carrying a weapon, as well as experience of victimisation. In terms of knife-users, socially excluded young people from dysfunctional families are more predisposed to be violent, particularly those who witness or experience violence in the home.
Our findings convinced us of the need to target knife-carriers and violent offenders separately. For the former, we advocate education in schools about the realities of knife-carrying and measures to help young people feel safer, such as improving confidence in the police and better victim support. Evidence suggests that the prospect of being caught can deter young people from breaking the law. We therefore support the use of stop and search, providing it is carried out in an appropriate manner.
While we encourage the use of custody as an appropriate sentence for the majority of knife-carriers and for violent offenders, high re-offending rates highlight its ineffectiveness as a long-term solution to violent crime. We recommend the expansion of offending behaviour and resettlement programmes as a means to reduce re-offending by prisoners, as well as interventions with young people on the cusp of more serious offending.
Finally, we advocate the adoption of a long-term violence reduction strategy that focuses on prevention. Evidence from the US points to the savings that can be made to the criminal justice system by investing resources in preventative initiatives, as well as the benefits to individuals and their communities. We specifically recommend better data-sharing about knife violence at a local level, early intervention with babies and toddlers born into dysfunctional families and a more strategic approach to providing diversionary activities and support for excluded young people.