LibLink: Nick Clegg: This knife crime law won’t work

Police motorbike - Some rights reserved by Metropolitan PoliceOn Monday, I wrote about the reported Coalition tension over Tory plans to bring in mandatory 6 month jail sentences for carrying a knife. I said that:

It’s important that Liberal Democrats stay in this debate and make the evidence-based case. Nobody else will do it for us. We may not be able to stop a bad law being passed, but we need to oppose it calmly, clearly and without rancour.

I would not suggest for a minute that the two events are in any way related, but Nick Clegg has done exactly that in today’s Guardian.

He says it’s important to look at what actually works, and not try to grab the headlines.

I have always believed that the key to reducing crime is to focus on what works. It may sound obvious, but politicians can easily end up chasing headlines, trying to sound tough but actually making the situation worse. Instead of this, we need to focus on firm, practical solutions that address the root causes of crime and stop people offending in the first place.

After making the point that crime is falling and has been all the way through this Government, he says that we can’t make laws as a reaction to one tragic event:

Everybody has been shaken by the death of Ann Maguire and the notion that any teacher should lose their life in the classroom. It was especially poignant because she was clearly such a widely respected and loved teacher. But in the aftermath of terrible events such as this we have to be careful that we don’t simply reach for headline-grabbing solutions that don’t necessarily work in practice.

That is why the Liberal Democrats have opposed a recent proposal to introduce a six-month mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who is convicted of possessing a knife for a second time. This is a minimum of six months in prison for simply having a knife, potentially even a penknife, in your pocket – not, as I’ve read in some press reports, for a number of offences involving a knife.

This does not make us soft on crime, however:

It is important to remember that there still should be consequences for carrying a knife. Prison is often going to be the right option, and violent offenders who are a danger to the public ought to be behind bars. Too many young people wrongly think they need to carry a knife for self-defence. Carrying a knife is not cool; it’s extremely stupid and dangerous. I’m a parent of young children. I can completely understand parents’ fears that a misjudged word or the wrong kind of eye contact could end up with their child being attacked.

There are times when prison would just make things worse:

When someone is caught carrying a knife, we need to do something about it. But six months in prison is not always the right answer. Imagine a vulnerable young girl hanging round with members of a gang. She could be forced into carrying a knife by another gang member; it happens a lot. When stopped by the police, she doesn’t mention that she was forced to carry the knife, fearing retribution from the gang.

Putting someone like that into prison could push them into the arms of hardened criminals, and let the gang leaders off the hook. Instead of prison, we need to divert vulnerable people away from gang culture.

It’s got to be up to the Judge to decide:

We also need to give judges the flexibility to use their expertise and judgment, based on the facts of each case. It is often entirely appropriate for judges to give a prison sentence for carrying a knife. While minimum sentencing might sound attractive in media headlines there is a serious risk it could undermine the role of the judges, who are best placed to decide on sentencing.

You can read the whole article here.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Hooray for Nick! When did you last see that sentence on LDV?

    Unfortunately , as Nick says, the fear of knife crime has led to some children carrying a knife just in case they are attacked – something like the NRA mantra in the USA “The only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is wrong and totally counter-productive but it cannot help to put such children automatically in prison without proper consideration by a court. There is political risk in Nick’s stance but he is right and if Labour supports the Tories on this they deserve vilification.

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th May '14 - 4:20pm

    Nick Clegg for Home Secretary!

  • Richard Wingfield 8th May '14 - 5:46pm

    I am with Nick on this 100%. Judges are far better placed to decide upon sentences than politicians. We have an excellent Sentencing Council who produce guidelines which are reviewed by Parliament’s Justice Committee before issue and that system works well. Mandatory sentencing risks injustice, particularly for an offence such as carrying a knife which contains a broad range of potential behaviour: contrast the young teenager who sees fights and violence in his area everyday and, terrified of getting caught up, carries a knife with him when he leaves the house with the gang leader who brandishes a machete in his neighbourhood.

  • David Evershed 8th May '14 - 8:14pm

    It is at times of crisis that true colours are revealed.

    The Conservative and Labour Parties knee jerk responded to the stabbing of a teacher by saying they wanted to second guess judges on individual knife cases by introducing a minimum sentence of six months prison for a second knife offence.

    The Lib Dems can envisage circumstamces where judges would not wish to impose such a sentence – so have rightly blocked the proposal to introduce a minimum six month sentence.

    Judges are far better placed to determine the appropriate sentence.

  • Michael Main 9th May '14 - 8:06am

    Good for Nick – but just how do we get his reasoned argument across to the Great British public when so much of the media is so anti him ?
    As an aside, did catch a bit of the Labour Party broadcast – how low can you go ?

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