Leading article: Good news and bad news

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The Independent Online

By just about any statistical measure, Britain is a safer country than it was a decade ago. The British Crime Survey shows that violent crime has fallen by about a third since 1997. Despite the impression given by some media outlets, the risk of falling victim to violent crime is lower than it has been for several years.

Yet that is no excuse for complacency from ministers. Such is the capacity of violent crime to ruin lives that no government can afford to ignore it. Violent crime is also concentrated in certain geographical areas. While offending rates might be falling nationwide, some cities are demonstrating a worrying upward trend. This necessitates a robust response from the Government and the police.

But the response has to be intelligent and proportionate. The latest Home Office measures aimed at reducing the levels of violent crime are a mixed bag. Police, probation and local authorities will be expected to identify and share information about those who are "at risk" of committing violent crimes. This is sensible enough, although one wonders why such co-operation is not already taking place. The Home Office is promising greater efforts to stop alcohol being sold to under-18s. This is also welcome, although again, why has it taken so long for ministers to demand that the law be enforced?

The most sensible announcement is the increase in the doubling of the number of sexual assault referral centres so that they will cover the entire country by 2011. This is something women's rights campaigners have long advocated. The evidence-gathering expertise of these centres should boost the present abysmally low conviction rate for rape. Also welcome is the pledge to do more to tackle so-called "honour crimes". But the plan is a let-down in other respects. Police will be issued with airport-style metal detectors to help them tackle knife crime. Technology is hardly the answer to the social problem of teenagers carrying knives. And in any case, only 440 "search wands" and 110 "portable knife arches" are to be issued nationwide. This sounds depressingly like a cheap gimmick.

The plan also suffers from the usual government vice of assuming that locking up as many people as possible is a useful contribution to lowering crime rates. Ministers want to encourage "tougher sentences" for knife crime. If incarceration were a major deterrent to criminality, we would surely be living in a crime-free nation by now. The Government is right to put a priority on reducing violent crime, and there are some sensible proposals in the latest measures, but ministers are still resisting the idea that the old "tough" approaches usually do more harm than good.

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