Monday, 26 May 2008

Tough on crime...

Will they never learn? And just who is leading whom in the latest moral panic?

Yesterday morning, we woke to news of yet another unprovoked and senseless stabbing. This time, it is a budding actor and bit-part player in the next Harry Potter movie. No offense intended.

The news leads on it. Yet another young man has fallen victim to "knife crime". Like, there is this disease out there which just afflicts teenagers the moment they pick up a knife.

The problem with this point of view - as I tried rather unsuccessfully to argue in a radio interview last week - is that it exists in an almost evidence-free vacuum. There aren't any very good long-term statistics for the usage of knives. Many incidents claimed as "knife crime" are simply incidents involving a sharp instrument. Like a bottle.

Murders in which a knife were used actually fell over the last few years.

So, yes. The headlines are clear. The facts are far less so.

Of course, there has been some very good and recent research in this area. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has impeccable academic creds - and might actually have some idea what it is talking about.

So, naturally, when an MP - Margaret Moran - wishes to instigate law on the online sale of knives, she goes... not to the CCJS for insight, but to a rather tawdry sting set up by the Sunday People. (This involved journalists posing as children and showing how easy it is to purchase illegal items online).

Headlines all round!

In the same week, the newspapers all reached for a study by GB Group Ltd. The fact that this company is the UK's largest provider of online id systems and may have something to gain from a little panic in this area was quite overlooked.

So there you have it. There's a knife problem. Its official.

Those who have looked at the problem closely reckon that it is not knives that are the problem - but something deeper. Something about a culture in which young people no longer feel safe UNLESS they carry knives.

If they are right - then focussing on knives is just so much waste of time. Ban knives, and they will sharpen screwdrivers. Ban screwdrivers and the hyper-lethal umbrella will make an appearance. And so on.

Unfortunately, tackling underlying problems is difficult and unglamorous. So expect more headlines. More panic. More politicians making irrelevant speeches.

But don't expect anything that contributes to a solution any time soon.

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