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Do we need harsher penalties for knife crimes as violent incidences increase?

The vicious fight on the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin city centre, during which at least one teenager was stabbed has brought the issue of knife crime sharply back into public focus.  

It is of course just the latest incident in a long and pitiful litany of knife related crime as a quick review will easily demonstrate.  We can begin in 2006, when the then Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, introduced what became known as a ‘Weapons Amnesty.’

It ran from September 1st to the end of October that year and resulted in 226 firearms, 43 knives and six swords being surrendered to the gardaí.

One person even surrendered a grenade, with another person handing over a ‘musket.’

At the end of that 2-month period-anyone found with an illegal firearm or weapon would have been on the receiving end of what McDowell called “the toughest penalties for firearms offences ever introduced in the history of the State.”

For Minister McDowell, this initiative formed part of an attempt to reduce the incidence of crime in which weapons, including knives, were involved.

The question is of course; has it actually worked in the longer term?  On the basis of recent results; the answer is ambiguous at best.

We know from the most recently available information provided by the gardaí that there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of knives seized by the gardaí from 2016-2018.

To be precise about it; there were 1,200 knives seized in 2016, 1,600 seized in 2017 and almost 2,000 knives seized in 2018.

That upward trend shows no signs of slowing down or reversing.

On the one hand this clearly a good thing. Significant numbers of knives are being removed from circulation. But on the other hand, the law is clearly not acting as any kind of deterrent from carrying a knife in the first place.

Concerned at this escalation and the increasing normalisation of carrying knives, Fianna Fail’s Justice Spokesperson, Jim O’Callaghan, introduced a Private Members Bill in July 2019, the Firearms and Offensive Weapons (Amendment) Bill 2019.

During the course of the later debates on his Bill, O’Callaghan pointed to the fact that:

“In May, June and July of this year (2019), four people were killed in our capital city as a result of being stabbed with knives. In May, a young man – we could describe him as a boy – of 18 years of age was fatally stabbed in the Finsbury Park area of Dundrum in Dublin. Tragically, he lost his life. In June, a homeless man was stabbed in the vicinity of the GPO. He also lost his life. In the same month, a Latvian woman who was staying in a hostel in west Dublin was stabbed and fatally injured. She lost her life as a result of the use of a knife.”  

What O’Callaghan sought to achieve with his Bill was an increase on the maximum sentence that can be imposed on a person who is convicted of having in his or her possession a knife for the purpose of inflicting harm on another person, from five to ten years imprisonment.

While O’Callaghan’s 2019 Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the last Dáil, he has re-introduced an updated version of it today. He has done so while repeatedly stressing the same point about the need for increased prison sentences for those convicted under its provisions.

It needs to be said however that while the approach of introducing harsher prison sentences generated support among the political parties-it was not an approach supported by organisations like The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT).

The IPRT pointed to the 2019 Report of the UK’s Youth Select Committee-Our Generation’s Epidemic: Knife Crime. that found opposition to longer sentences as a deterrent for young people who are involved in knife crime was expressed in several pieces of evidence that it had received. The Committee eventually concluded that harsher punishments or longer custodial sentences will not address the issue.

What is needed instead say the Irish Penal Reform Trust is “for young people at risk of getting involved in knife crime to receive targeted interventions as a matter of urgency.”

The IRPT also highlight measures such as “the need to introduce interventions focused on identifying and meeting a young person in a ‘teachable moment’ as a national tactic to provide targeted interventions for example, when a young person  has been arrested for committing a knife crime or when they come into an emergency room after they have been injured.”

Despite the conflicting evidence around the long-term effectiveness of initiatives like knife amnesties, many parts of the UK continue to operate them.

In fact, the UK Government at one point announced funding of £35 million to establish 18 new violence reduction units across the country to tackle knife crime and other violent offences, including £3.4 million towards setting one up in Greater Manchester.  This was after knife crime hit a ten-year high.

Ireland too has seen similar anti-knife campaigns in 2009, 2012 and 2017.

But as we have seen from the 2016-2018 evidence this has done nothing to slow down the rate of knives being seized despite all the ‘teachable moments’ that the IPRT and others have advocated as an important preventative tool in the fight against knife crime.



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