Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Getting the knives out

The Tories seem to have the dog whistles out again. This time to convince their own supporters (who I guess they are fearful of losing to UKIP) that they are “tough on crime”, they are highlighting “knife crime” and the need for “mandatory sentences”. Ed Miliband fearful of being accused of soft and weak has fallen in line. Cleggy to his credit has not.

Nick Clegg has defended his opposition to mandatory sentences for carrying a knife as he faced criticism from Boris Johnson, Ed Miliband and the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe.

Clegg revealed in the Guardian he had rejected Conservative plans for six-month jail sentences for anyone found in possession of a knife more than once. The plans were championed by Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, and is set to be put to the Commons by Tory backbenchers. The Labour leader’s decision to support the proposal suggests it is likely to be passed when the measure is debated in a few weeks.
The Guardian 8 May 2014: Deputy prime minister defends his stance on knife possession plan

Whilst knife crime is a very serious issue in some parts of this country the proposed solution is a simplistic over-reaction.

It is an over-reaction for a number of reasons:

  1. Mandatory sentences remove discretion from judges; either you believe they are there to judge and make judgements, or you don’t. If you don’t, why have courts – you could just extend police powers – it “works” in other countries.
  2. “Carrying a knife” is “simple” to police – you either have a knife about your person or you don’t, but there can be good reasons for “carrying a knife”. Therefore the test should surely be a more complex one “threatening to use or using” a knife in a way like to cause “alarm or injury”.
  3. It potentially criminalises the otherwise law-abiding citizen – remember we are talking mandatory jail sentences – no discretion.

Mandatory Jail Sentences have to be a blunt inefficient instrument. We need targeted action against people who use or threaten to use knives to alarm or injure. We want judges who will apply discretion. We do not want to fill the jails with otherwise law-abiding citizens living normal lives.

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