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Young people, violence and knives - revisiting the evidence and policy discussions

Authors: Roger Grimshaw and Matt Ford

As well as providing an update on recent trends in the phenomenon of ‘knife crime’, this briefing seeks to review the subsequent development of policy themes that emerged in a series of reports published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) in the period around 2008 when knife crime reportedly last peaked in England and Wales. It highlights the progress of different strategic approaches to violence and what we can discern about their prevention mechanisms and effects.

Our previous report sponsored by the Children’s Commissioner was based on a thorough review and analysis of literature which established a clear judgement of how the evidence on gun and knife violence then lay (Silvestri et al., 2009). Though the evidence base was not extensive, the conclusions pointed towards some promising evidence-based approaches to violence prevention, and questioned the dominance of criminal justice in strategic responses. As in the earlier report we have broadened the focus of study to include evidence about interpersonal violence more generally where this seemed appropriate: knives are such an everyday tool of violence that their use does not qualify for an exclusive study and wider lessons about violence reduction therefore apply.

This briefing does not replicate the scale of our earlier evidence review. Instead we referred to materials collated from literature searches that sought to identify important developments based on the previous themes which as we shall see are coming into clearer focus in public discussion. In particular, the study identifies ‘drivers’ of violence which underlie the familiar themes of ‘gangs’ and illegal drug markets. These deeper influences include some fundamental social relationships - inequality, deprivation and social trust - as well as mental health.

At its heart are choices about the scope and effects of criminal justice as a means of managing public safety. Does criminal justice offer a proven and certain way to increase protection for populations or are there alternatives which deserve concerted development and review? In particular what does a ‘public health’ approach

mean? Is it police-led, albeit with community and multiagency support, as described by the umbrella label ‘pulling levers’? Or does it mean the coordination of a range of public services, comprising early years interventions, inclusive education, adolescent and family services, community work, and so on?

The idea that violence can be reduced by a ‘public health’ approach is relatively novel. Can physicians, rather than police officers, devise techniques of violence prevention based on combating epidemic diseases? Can communities and individuals affected by violence be engaged in new ways that address the underlying drivers

of violence instead of the surface manifestations? Similar ideas have been applied in numerous projects in the USA and imported to the UK through the Violence Reduction Unit, a police-led project in Scotland. While these approaches have been broadly welcomed in the UK, they have not so far been implemented in England and Wales with the focus and investment that might have been expected. Had they been put into practice, we might have been able to see more evidence about their effectiveness.