Nick Clegg: Conservative knife prison plan is a 'step backwards'

Lib Dem leader says automatic six-month terms would turn young offenders into 'hardened criminals'

The Coalition row over knife crime sentences has deepened as Nick Clegg called the Conservative plans to automatically jail anyone caught twice carrying a knife “a step backwards”.

Leaked letters revealed the proposal by Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, last week in the wake of the killing of Ann Maguire at a school in Leeds.

It sparked a deep rift within the Coalition as the Liberal Democrats accused the Tories of capitalising on the teacher’s death.

Writing in The Guardian yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister warned that “chasing headlines, trying to sound tough” did not address the root cause of crime.

He wrote: “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.”

The law would see adults convicted of possessing a knife for a second time jailed automatically for at least six months.

Mitigating factors are currently taken into account by judges and sentences can start at 12 weeks.

Mr Clegg said six months in prison is “not always the right answer” for offenders.

He wrote: “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.”

The Liberal Democrat leader argued for measures to move people away from gang culture stop young people carrying knives.

He raised concerns that minimum sentences could undermine the role of judges, who he said needed the flexibility to use their expertise.

Mr Clegg wrote: “This is why I believe this proposed law would be a step backwards.

“It would undermine the government's progress in establishing a rehabilitation revolution, and reducing crime. We need to treat knife crime very seriously by letting judges choose the sentence to fit the crime.

“Turning the young offenders of today into the hardened criminals of tomorrow is not the answer.”

Dozens of backbench Conservative MPs have come out in support of introducing the changes through an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which returns to the Commons on Monday.

Labour has not formally supported or opposed the plan.

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Lib Dems and Tories at war over knife crime