Knife crime leaks reveal coalition battle over mandatory sentencing

The Court House - Warwick - Coat of ArmsLetters between government ministers debating whether a second offence of carrying a knife should attract a mandatory prison sentence have been leaked to the Daily Mail. The timing of these leaks must suggest an attempt by some Conservatives to exploit the appalling murder of Anne Maguire for political ends.

It may be a little less precise, but I am reporting this as ‘second offence of possession’, because more serious knife-related offences attract mandatory prison sentences already, including the offence, new in 2012, of using a knife to threaten someone. Possession, while not attracting a mandatory sentence can be given a custodial sentence by a judge if he or she judges that to be appropriate in the circumstances.

The BBC are reporting comments from Michael Gove

It is absolutely important that we use Parliament to communicate to the public – and to anyone tempted to carry a knife in public – that the sentence for behaving in this way will be clear and firm and tough.

suggesting that the point here is not so much to get sentencing right, but to ‘send a message’. But if hard cases make bad law, ‘sending a messsage’ surely makes terrible law. And a mandatory sentence only sounds tough: you might imagine a ‘mandatory’ sentence is worse than a normal sentence, but all ‘mandatory’ means is that a sentence must be applied even if the judge thinks it is inappropriate. You actually make sentences tougher by making them longer, not by making them mandatory.

Danny Alexander is quoted as saying

It is very hard to see how it could be afforded. The Treasury does not support this amendment and I am not willing to clear it.

which is presumably a standard letter that is sent out 10 times a day. David Laws and Kenneth Clarke are also quoted defending judicial judgement over sentencing.

And yet, there is a shared national pain and grief at the murders of Anne Maguire and Philip Lawrence (whose killer is due to be released), and it is understandable that politicians want to recognise this and mark it with a meaningful gesture such as a change in the law. I only wish we could find gestures that turned fewer troubled young men into hardened criminals through inappropriate prison sentences.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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13 Comments

  • Jack Holroyde 2nd May '14 - 12:24pm

    Absolutely.
    Remember how stupid it was when Gordon Brown felt the need to release a statement after Susan Boyle’s every move?
    This is just Grayling doing the same – a self interested politician going ‘oh look, a bandwagon to jump on!’.

    We must get dealing with knife crime *right*. We cannot afford to rush into a situation where someone must be jailed for a trivial offense – when we all know prison teaches young people how to ‘do crime better’.

  • Richard Dean 2nd May '14 - 1:16pm

    Sentencing is certainly about sending a message, as well as other things. Sending a message is the familiar concept of deterrence, which is one of the principles by which societies have traditionally justified and decided sentences.
    http://sixthformlaw.info/01_modules/mod1/1_3_penal_system_1_principles/02_principles_aims_of_sentencing.htm

  • Lynton Crosby’s grotty mits all over this.

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd May '14 - 2:31pm

    “use parliament to communicate to the public” is a phrase that is worrying, revelatory, and could spark many a PhD.

  • I have known people, upstanding middle class non youths, who after a mugging take to carrying a knife around with them. I think it’s stupid and they’d be better with any number of things like pepper spray but mandatory prison sentences for possession could backfire badly once the wrong person is arrested for it.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 2nd May '14 - 3:50pm

    Michael Gove

    It is absolutely important that we use Parliament to communicate to the public – and to anyone tempted to carry a knife in public – that the sentence for behaving in this way will be clear and firm and tough.

    Anyone? I think the Sikh community might have something to say about that Mr. Gove.

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd May '14 - 4:05pm

    m, what do you mean by the ‘wrong person’? I hope you don’t mean middle class people are above arrest?

  • πŸ™‚

    No, I mean society is sadly class biased and laws are always made for “them” and not for “us”
    See the mps crying deep meaningful tears overan mp not being able to claim costs for his defence recently.

  • Richard Wingfield 2nd May '14 - 6:43pm

    @Richard Dean: That deterrence is a purpose of sentencing is not only well-known but is set out in statute. Section 142(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 states that:

    “Any court dealing with an offender in respect of his offence must have regard to the following purposes of sentencing (…) (b)the reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence)”.

    Judges are very familiar with the purposes of sentencing and regularly refer to deterrence (and the other purposes) in their judgments. In the case of R v Povey (2008), the Court of Appeal specifically discussed the need for deterrence when sentencing knife crime (including carrying a knife) and that custodial sentences would usually be appropriate.

    That said, there is no need for Parliament to intervene to “send a message”. If politicians are going to decide sentences then what’s the point of the judge at all when someone is found guilty. Why not just have a civil servant from the Ministry of Justice pop into court and tell the defendant what their sentence is? Much cheaper. The reason is that judges have heard all of the evidence, hear all the mitigation and see a Pre-Sentence Report produced by the Probation Service. They are in a far better position to sentence than Parliament, particularly given that every crime is unique and must be sentenced uniquely. When it comes to sentencing, it is the judiciary’s role to “send a message”, not Parliament’s.

  • Richard Dean 2nd May '14 - 7:09pm

    @Richard Wingfield. Is it not Parliament that sets the rules for judges to follow? In that sense, Parliament’s decisions and statements do send a message, and it is indeed important to get that message right.

  • I am reminded of the mandatory sentence for possessing an unlicensed handgun – 5 years I believe. A local Conservative Councillor has recently been charged with this – joy among his opponents! – but it is claimed that the gun in question was a souvenir given to him many years ago, has no ammunition, and is incomplete and unable to fire. Nevertheless it should have been registered. If the gun really was unusable, and there was clearly no intent to ever use it, while it was still an offence to possess it the full mandatory 5 year sentence seems unjust.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 3rd May '14 - 8:46am

    I am very impressed that Nick, Danny and David have taken this stand. In Scotland, one of Labour’s main policies at the 2011 Holyrood election was a 6 month mandatory sentence for anyone carrying a knife. “Carry a knife, go to jail” was their slogan.

    Their then Justice Spokesperson fell apart on national tv trying to explain the policy, having to admit that he’d got the (wrong) figures about how much money knife crime cost the NHS in Scotland from the press.

    Recent research in Scotland has shown that it is education, not jail, that is key in preventing knife crime. Police are going into schools and frightening the living daylights out of teenagers, telling them how easy it is to be stabbed to death and how more knives = more dead people.

    Another useful resource is the No Knives Better Lives campaign.

    So, it’s not just about money, it’s evidence based policy to oppose Grayling on this.

  • geoffrey payne 5th May '14 - 8:42am

    Nick and Danny are absolutely right on this. It was new Labour who started this practice of changing the law after every bad news story as though that would solve the problem. The Tories are no different. Laws are useful up to a point but where they are motivated by playing to the gallery they are likely to be half baked and counter productive.

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