Leading article: Prison won't halt this epidemic of stabbing

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:18

Another day, another stabbing. On Saturday, a budding actor, Robert Knox, 18, was knifed to death in Sidcup, Kent. Yesterday, a 19-year-old was in critical condition after being stabbed in East Ham, east London. Earlier this month, Jimmy Mizen, 16, was stabbed to death at Lee, in south-east London. Fatal knife crimes are losing their power to shock. As the gap between each crime closes, we have less time to absorb what happened. Faces blur. Stabbing is becoming a routine occurrence, at least in London and other cities.

Many people's reaction will be to panic. Understandably so. No one looking at the statistics can claim these sorts of crime are not rising, even as other forms of crime, such as break-ins or car thefts, taper off. It is no good politicians trying to comfort the public with talk of the fear of crime being part of the problem. People are not persuaded by graphs showing overall crime levels going down, either. It is not economic crimes or frauds that worry them, but random violence.

The lack of any obvious motive ratchets up the fear, driving people off public transport and out of public spaces, such as parks and swimming pools. Robert Knox died in a pub brawl. Jimmy Mizen appears to have been killed while trying to calm another dispute. Yesterday's victim was apparently involved in a trivial dispute over a mobile phone, which may have triggered the assault.

But as unease mounts about knife crime, we must pause before reaching for instant responses such as increased use of stop and search powers and more and longer custodial sentences for teenagers. We need to listen to those who work closest with the kind of youngsters who get involved in inner-city youth crime, such as Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company, who is interviewed in today's Independent. None sees boot camps and tougher, longer prison sentences for young people as even part of the solution. Ms Batmanghelidjh talks, disturbingly, of a new generation of children who are capable of extreme violence as a consequence of, and response to, a combination of neglect and abuse in childhood.

These children are chaotic and entirely unsocialised and short, sharp shocks appear unlikely to implant in them the kind of behavioural boundaries that are needed to stop them from re-offending.

While not patronising the public about the seriousness of knife crime in Britain, we must not resort to facile-sounding solutions that simply fill up prisons. Repairing the damaged fabric of a generation of children, some of whom have never learned to care for themselves, let alone for others, is a long-term business for which there is no easy answer.

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