Chapter 3 – Prosecution of Knife Crime in Scotland in Context
60. In this chapter we examine the extent of the knife crime problem in Scotland and the various strands of work going on in Government departments and other agencies to try to tackle it.
What is the extent of the knife crime problem in Scotland?
61. In 2002 the WHO (World Health Organisation) report 'World Report on Violence and Health' listed Scotland alongside Argentina, Costa Rica and Lithuania as having a homicide rate of 5.3 per 100,000 per population in males between 10 and 29. The comparative figure in England and Wales group was 1.0 per 100,000.
62. Five years ago in 36% of murders in Scotland (34 cases) the method of killing was by use of a sharp implement.
63. Although there has been a recorded drop in homicide figures in the last year 4 (as at 13 December 2010 Scottish police forces recorded 78 cases of homicide for the year 2009/10, representing a 10 year low) knives continue to play a depressingly significant part in the homicide figures. Last year (2010) 35 people were killed by sharp instruments, representing 44% of the homicides in Scotland.
64. Indeed in each of the last 10 years (and 2009/10 was no exception) using a sharp implement was the most common method of killing. Whilst this figure is down from a peak at 58% in 2008/09 it still represents over three times as many as were killed in other ways: hitting and kicking (15% of male victims); use of a blunt instrument (13% of male victims) or strangulation/asphyxiation (26% of female victims).
65. There are geographical variations. The West of Scotland remains the national geographical homicide hotspot. In 2005/06 62 homicides took place in Strathclyde police force area representing 65% of the total. In 2009/10 the figure was 43 (55% of the total). Knife crime also follows the same geographical slant with a large proportion of knife crime committed in the West of Scotland as is seen in our case review chapter.
66. Although perhaps the public perception of violent knife crime is of a public street encounter in fact last year 60% of homicides took place in a house and 28% were out on a street. The figures do not reveal how many of those homicides that took place in a house involved a pointed implement but we noted a significant number of knife crime cases in our case review took place in a domestic setting.
67. In 2005/06 there were 94 homicides, 710 attempted murders, 6,320 serious assaults, 3,553 robberies and over 72,000 minor assaults. Of the 94 homicides 5 years ago 46% took place in a house and 41% happened in a street or an outdoor open area. These figures are taken from the Scottish Government published crime statistics contained in 'Criminal Proceedings in Scottish Courts in Scotland 2005/06' with its corresponding publication for this last year 2009/10 (now re-named 'Criminal Proceedings in Scotland').
68. While the homicide figures are examined by statisticians with regard to weapon used, statistics covering other crimes of violence such as assault (both 'serious assault including attempted murder' and 'common assault'), robbery, rape do not reveal the extent of weapon or in particular, knife usage.
69. There has been little research into knife crime as such until very recently when the Scottish Government commissioned research into knife crime in the context of gang culture in Scotland.
70. Knife crime is not a distinctly Scottish problem. In England and Wales the government invited TV personality Brooke Kinsella to report on the work taking place around the country to help young people out of the cycle of violence and prevent them getting involved in knife crime. Her report 5 outlines some of the reasons the young people themselves gave for getting involved with knife crime and what seemed to work in terms of prevention. As a result the government announced a range of measures designed to change attitudes and behaviour alongside tough measures for those persisting in violence.
71. In Scotland there is recently published research 6 into knife carrying among gang members. Gang members in Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh and, to a lesser extent, Dundee and Aberdeen were interviewed as well as serving prisoners in Barlinnie and Perth (adult) prisons and Polmont Young Offenders Institute.
72. Although the report was clear that knife carrying is not the exclusive domain of the young or of gang members in the context of the research it found that knife carrying and use was most strongly associated with gangs in the west of Scotland. Many of the participants in the study had been the victim of knife crime themselves and cited as a reason for carrying a knife their own protection, particularly when venturing outside of their territorial area. Other reasons cited were to enhance reputation as a 'hard man' or quite simply with the intention of using it to stab someone.
73. Despite some knowledge of both physical risks to their own safety and risk to liberty if convicted these risks did not always have the assumed deterrent effect.
74. While there has been some recently published research regarding the effects of community based sentencing with curfew restrictions 7 there is a lack of published research on the effects of custodial sentencing on those who commit knife crime.
Knife/offensive weapon carrying
75. For our purposes, looking at knife crime, the other relevant statistics concern what is described as 'handling an offensive weapon'.
76. These statistics are drawn from the cases where the accused has been charged under Section 47(1) of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995. Not all 'offensive weapons' are knives or similar implements but very many do fall within that description. However these statistics do not then cover the separate offence of having an article with them that has a blade or is sharply pointed (s49 (1) of the 1995 Act) - and many knife 'carriers' are caught under the latter provision where there is no evidence to prove intention to use but nonetheless they had with them, perhaps in a pocket, a knife or blade or similar implement.
77. However limiting these statistics are they nevertheless provide some indication of trends in offending and conviction rates and in sentencing.
Offending/conviction for weapon carrying
78. In 2005/06 3,392 people had a charge of 'handling an offensive weapon' proved against them (reportedly an increase of 42% on figures from 2001/02). In 2009/10 there was a 33% drop in that figure to 2,855.
What is being done to address the knife crime problem in Scotland?
79. Scottish Government policy concerning knife crime has two distinct strands:
- Preventing violent behaviour by tackling the causes of knife crime
- Enforcement - tough action to keep the public safe and punish those who break the law
80. The role of COPFS clearly falls into the second of those strands, although we did come across some examples of Procurators Fiscal engaging with local community projects to support the first (preventative) strand of work.
81. The Scottish Government takes a public health approach to violence prevention. A WHO report in 2010 - 'Violence prevention: the evidence' -indicates that a number of strategies from early years and adolescent interventions through to more directed measures such as alcohol pricing, legislation to curb weapon carrying through to victim care can all contribute to some degree to preventing violence and there appear to be a number of programmes which fall into this category.
82. The Youth Justice Department of Scottish Government is encouraging all agencies involved with children to intervene at the earliest opportunity to address offending behaviour and so prevent escalation to the more serious levels it might otherwise reach. One example we found of the work being done was YouthLink Scotland. This is a national agency that co-ordinates activity among a variety of agencies to provide frontline services and youth activities including training materials such as "Sharp Solutions" - a template for activities and discussions with young people addressing knife crime.
Violence Reduction Unit
83. Based in Glasgow and led by Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, this was first established in 2005 as a unit of Strathclyde Police. In 2006 the Unit assumed a national role in Scotland and is now supported by the Scottish Government. Its motto is 'violence is preventable, not inevitable' and the Unit leads on a number of preventative initiatives.
84. The Unit is responsible for analysis of crime trends in violent crime around Scotland as well as specific initiatives aimed at tackling some of the identified problem areas. Profiling of victims and offenders involved in knife crime, identification of hotspots and timing of offences has allowed police to be proactive and target potential offenders with effective patrolling and search strategies that have made some impact on violent crime committed in public spaces.
85. Alongside these measures, more long term measures have been devised and put in place. One such measure from the VRU is CIRV:
CIRV - Community Initiative to Reduce Violence
86. Described as a 'multi-agency community based project with the aim of securing a rapid and sustained reduction in violent behaviour amongst gang members across Glasgow', it is loosely based on a programme run in the USA to tackle gun crime in Cincinnati.
87. An intelligence-informed mapping exercise was carried out of gangs and their known membership in the east and north of Glasgow. In 2008/09 there were thought to be 76 gangs in these two areas of the city alone with in excess of 1,000 members overall. Gang members have been invited to attend sessions which are held regularly at the Sheriff Court in Glasgow. The sessions are chaired by a Sheriff and there are three basic elements to the programme:
- Enforcement. The message that the violence must stop is given to those attending. Senior police officers (and prosecutors) are among those delivering the message that if the violence continues the enforcement will be targeted on those who have heard but persist. The Procurator Fiscal in Glasgow is involved in this aspect of the initiative.
- Services and programmes. In exchange for a commitment to stop offending a range of options can be offered to the participants including addiction support, sporting opportunities, employment advice and placements and counselling to name a few.
- Moral voice of the community. Members of the local communities in these parts of the city come to tell their side of the story - about how knife crime has affected their homes, their streets. Medical professionals also attend to provide an insight into the consequences of using knives.
88. Although yet to be fully independently evaluated CIRV's initial reports indicate an encouraging level of reduction in violent offending among those who engaged.
Violence surveillance using NHS data
89. Another innovative idea being taken forward is the sharing of 'anonymised' information collected at Accident and Emergency (A & E) departments in hospitals concerning the incidence of violence and use of weapons at particular geographical 'hotspots' so that police can track violence trends and take preventative measures. Many victims of violence do not report the crime to the police but do attend at A & E with their injuries. The National Violence Surveillance Network established by the Cardiff University Violence Research Group in England and Wales found that such measures led to decreased numbers of wounded victims attending A & E as a result of violence and a decrease in serious assaults reported to the police. A pilot study is underway in Lanarkshire hospitals along the same lines.
Medics Against Violence
90. This is a charitable organisation set up by three Scottish surgeons with the aim of raising awareness of the risks and consequences of violence. The 'Medics' - all volunteers - go into schools on invitation and deliver a structured session to children aged 12/13 providing information about the medical impact of knife crime on the victims they treat in hospital. MAV (as it is known) has close links with the Violence Reduction Unit and is affiliated with the WHO Violence Prevention Alliance.
No Knives Better Lives
91. Launched in March 2009 - this is a national youth engagement initiative aimed at educating young people about the dangers of carrying a knife. It was first piloted in Inverclyde before being rolled out nationally. An educational programme was devised including workshops with contributions from victims, ex-offenders, medical professionals and sportsmen as well as a dramatisation depicting the consequences of carrying a knife. This was backed up with an advertising campaign in cinemas, bus stops and other locations.
92. Although we considered that Procurators Fiscal would be involved in the 'enforcement' element of the Government's policy we did find some evidence of community engagement along with criminal justice partners such as police or local authorities to reinforce the message that carrying a knife is dangerous for both the carrier and potential victim.
93. One District Fiscal advised us that he had attended schools in his area as part of the Big World Initiative run by the local authority and was involved in judging a poster competition on a criminal justice theme. Many of the posters were about the dangers of carrying a knife and were considered to be very effective. They were subsequently framed and now hang on the wall in the local Fiscal's office.
94. Ferroguard metal detectors have been used by police forces as an effective way of identifying knife carrying in public places. Individual police forces have adopted their own 'stop and search' policies.
Licensing of knife dealers
95. From 1 June 2010 all those who sold non domestic knives were required to obtain a licence from their local authority. Terms of the licence would cover such matters as record keeping, storage and display of the knives. Enforcement is for Trading Standards departments of local authorities. It is not yet clear how this will impact on knife dealers and doubtful that it will affect internet sales.
Knife crime awareness in prison
96. Although prison is the end result for many under the 'enforcement' element of the strategy even here there is preventative work aimed at addressing knife crime. During our inspection we observed a knife crime awareness session that is offered to all young offenders at HMYOI Polmont who are shortly due for release.
97. This session, run by the Polmont 'Interventions' team combined a series of presentations, film clips and discussion exercises. The messages during this session highlighted the robust sentencing policy for knife crime, the risks of using a knife when it was carried only for protection and the consequences of knife crime for all concerned. One video clip was from an interview with an inmate who had been previously served a short term in prison, had been a model prisoner and had done well on his release but had then gone on to commit a number of serious assaults with knives leading to a lengthy sentence. At the end of the session, offenders were encouraged to consider how they might in the future avoid situations that would lead them back into crime either carrying or using knives.
98. Seven of the nine who attended the session admitted that they had carried a knife in the past. Interestingly, when asked what would reduce knife crime offending the participants offered the view that, alongside better opportunities to use their time constructively either in activities or employment, longer custodial sentences for knife crime would be a deterrent.
99. Many of the preventative measures we have described above relate to violent crime in a public setting. Law enforcement officers told us that although many measures concerning knife crime in public settings were being tackled effectively by these preventative measures it has been far more difficult to tackle violence (of any type, knife crime included) that takes place behind closed doors. As the statistics show, 60% of violent crime in Scotland occurs behind closed doors and it has been more difficult to be proactive in this setting, although Strathclyde Police have reported some success, for example, in targeting known domestic violence perpetrators prior to football matches.
100. As the sole prosecution authority in Scotland the COPFS has a unique role to play in enforcement of the law concerning knife crime. The then Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd QC announced the new knife crime policy in 2006. Since then, the robust policy has been championed by his successor, Elish Angiolini QC and the Solicitor General Frank Mulholland QC.
101. In 2009 the Lord Advocate presented a Crown Appeal against an 'unduly lenient' sentence in respect of the case of HMA v Boyle, Maddock and Kelly 8. This was a case of murder in which a knife had been used to stab the deceased on the leg in the course of a murderous attack in which he was repeatedly struck on the head with a bottle, stamped on his head, dragged downstairs and struck with a pole before being set alight on a makeshift 'pyre'.
102. The Appeal Court Judges had this to say:
"The Lord Advocate emphasised that murders committed with knives, swords and similar weapons were currently a matter of grave concern in Scotland. Although there were no figures available specifically for murder cases she advised us that police figures for homicide as a whole indicated that for 2007/08 there were 22 per million in Scotland as against 14.6 for England and Wales and 14 for Northern Ireland. Just under half of the Scottish figures represented deaths caused by a pointed weapon.
We agree that at the present time knife crime is a scourge in the Scottish community and that the court should be acting, and seen to be acting, in a way which discourages the carrying of sharp weapons, the use of which may lead to needless deaths. Sentences which may cause individuals to think more carefully before arming themselves and which reflect public concern at such killings are appropriate."
103. The Solicitor General, Frank Mulholland QC stated in March 2009:
"Since the new guidelines were introduced on 26 June 2006:
More than 600 knife carriers have been prosecuted on indictment rather than summary complaint, allowing a greater sentencing power for the judge.
Convictions have been recorded in more than three quarters of concluded cases.
78% of these convictions have resulted in imprisonment.
Prosecutors have opposed bail in 83% of these cases, of which 69% have resulted in the accused being kept in custody pending trial.
The average sentence of imprisonment passed for knife crime prosecutions on indictment is more than 11 months.
These figures send a clear message to those who carry knives or use knives to harm others. That message is simple: you risk going straight to prison and staying there for a long time. Anyone thinking of carrying a knife should think again. We will not be relaxing our robust prosecution policy."
104. Leaders in the COPFS, that is to say, the Deputy Crown Agent, the Crown Office Head of Policy and Area Procurators Fiscal were all involved in shaping the terms of the overarching guidance contained in General Minute 2/06 which was approved by the Law Officers.
105. There continues to be direct involvement of those key figures in developing and steering the Crown's policy and practice in relation to knife crime. At national level - quarterly meetings between Law Officers and Head of Operations in COPFS and the Violence Reduction Unit ( VRU) take place so that COPFS is kept informed about latest developments. The Head of VRU advised that he was aware of the Crown's policy on knife crime. There has been no call from any quarter for a change to the current prosecution policy.
106. In the COPFS Strategic Plan 2009-12 a commitment is given to continuing to tackle serious crime.
"We take a robust approach in relation to the prosecution of knife crime. Those carrying knives risk going straight to prison and staying there for a long time."
107. In making this strategic aim a reality, the Procurator Fiscal and every Depute Fiscal around the country has an important role. The law on knife crime can be complex and working within tight timescales can be particularly challenging.