Knives are out for gang culture

With knife crime back in the news, many are baying for tougher sentences for anyone caught carrying a weapon. A knife amnesty has seen hundreds of weapons surrendered in Bolton alone, including a 5ft long broadsword and a machete, and ministers have been discussing the possibility of longer sentences for criminals convicted of knife crime. Some campaigners believe that tougher sentencing is the key to cracking down on knife crimes. However, others say that the most effective way to deal with the problem is to stop children from getting involved while they are still young.

Bolton Youth Inclusion and Support Panel (YISP) brings support from numerous agencies, ranging from the police to Social Services, who work together to help children in vulnerable positions who may find themselves drawn into a life of crime. And organisers say that not only does it keep more young people away from crime it saves tax payers' money, too. Ian Hepplewhite, youth inclusion manager for Bolton Council's Sport Health Inclusion Unit, is one of the brains behind the YISP. He believes that the key to the panel's success is its multi-agency approach, and in turn that those agencies are making the streets of Bolton safer. "With the best will in the world, if only one agency is involved, quite often it will fail, but if you have a lot of agencies, all picking away at different bits, then you're making a bigger difference," he said.

The YISP accepts referrals of young people from various areas, from those displaying the early signs of risk factors which may lead them into crime including family breakdown, substance misuse and anti-social behaviour to those who have been picked up by police and are already in the early stages of crime. Each young person then is allocated a key worker, who assesses all factors which may lead them into crime and the opportunities they have to avoid taking that path. "There are two sides to the work we do. One side is to get them as much support as they need, because in 99 per cent of cases there is something triggering this behaviour, whether it's a neglect or drugs issue at home, or a group of friends who are leading them astray.

"The other side is going through the consequences of the offence that they are involved in this is what's going to happen to the victim, this is what's going to happen to you, this is how long you're going to get locked up for and this is how many people you'll not see in that time," said Ian. Ian is aware that projects like the YISP may come in for criticism from those who believe that the only way to tackle crime is to be as tough as possible on its perpetrators. He has a ready answer to those who say that counselling and support services are a waste of tax payers' money. "We get that all the time, that we shouldn't be supporting these young people, we should be locking them up. But actually in terms of being cost effective and having any success, the stuff that we're doing has a bigger impact. It is the most expensive thing to put more police out on the streets, make laws harder, build more prisons. "All the evidence says that locking a young person up is not as cost effective as catching a young person early, and that also has the biggest impact. Once you have someone in that youth offending system, where they are potentially meeting other young offenders, it can spiral," Ian said.

The figures do support Ian's assertions. The Home Office found that per 1000 spent, hot spot policing cuts approximately 1.9 crimes, whereas Youth Inclusion and Support Panels can cut around 15 crimes per 1000 spent. And as far as knife crime goes, Ian believes that schemes like the YISP, along with initiatives such as the knife amnesty, which runs until the end of the month, are the key to curbing what some see as a rising problem. He said: "I would say that the vast majority of young people are not carrying knives. But if there are two groups and there is conflict between them, that is when it might rear its ugly head, almost a bravado thing. "I think people who would take that step of going on to the next level and actually using one are young people who are generally very angry, very unhappy, very disturbed, have a lot of issues going on in their lives, and have almost nothing to lose.

"The way we deal with it is by catching the young people who have a lot of issues and putting that package of support in place, letting them know that someone does care and is trying to help them in whatever way they can. "The amnesty gives people who have knives but have no intention of using them, who just carry them for bravado, the chance to get rid of them. It's an opportunity to come clean before the big stick comes and gets you, because I'm sure the Government are planning much tougher measures to deal with people who do carry knives in the future."

Kat Dibbits
19 June 2006

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