Joanna Cherry: To find answers to the rise in knife crime, look to Scotland
Scotland has reduced knife crime by treating violence as a public health and social problem, says Joanna Cherry
Death or assault with a knife leaves a scar not just on the victim, but on family, friends, neighbours and the wider community. Homicides, such as the stabbing of Bailey Gwynne at an Aberdeen school in October 2015, create a national sense of shock and profound loss.
But despite such a recent tragedy, knife crime in Scotland has plummeted over the last decade and, given the recent spate of stabbings in London, it is understandable that police, politicians and healthcare professionals are now looking to Scotland for a solution to their problem.
A decade ago Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, had a serious problem with knife crime. In 2004-05 there were 40 murders in Glasgow, more than a third of the total Scottish homicide rate, earning Glasgow the inglorious title of the murder capital of western Europe.
During that time, I served as crown counsel (a high court prosecutor in Scotland) and came face-to-face with the problem on a daily basis. The then Strathclyde police force (now part of Police Scotland) launched a new strategy in response to the epidemic of knife crime.
A new holistic approach saw the formation of the violence reduction unit (VRU) which sought to treat violent crime as a public health and social problem.
By treating violence like a disease, the VRU sought to diagnose the problem, analyse the causes, examine what works and for whom, and develop solutions which, once evaluated, could be scaled up to help others.
The VRU works with other agencies like health, education and social work to create lasting attitudinal change in society rather than a quick fix. The now national unit receives long-term stable funding from the Scottish government in order to provide a centre of expertise on tackling violent crime.
In 2008, Scotland’s first SNP government sought to significantly change justice policy and focus towards prevention and inclusion. Scotland’s whole system approach (WSA) to young people at risk of offending marked a shift away from previous policies which increasingly sought to criminalise, label and stigmatise young people, such as asbos, and to move towards a policy whose aim was to provide early and effective interventions which kept young people out of formalised justice settings.
This work focuses on collaborative approaches between schools, social work, the police, the prosecution service and the third sector in order to reduce offending behaviour. Much of this work was informed by the Edinburgh Study on Youth Transitions and Crime by Professors McAra and McVie.
In addition to the VRU, the Scottish government also has a Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice at Strathclyde University (CYCJ) which is dedicated to supporting improvements in youth justice and works to provide knowledge exchange, practice development for professionals working with young people, and research on youth justice issues.
Crime in Scotland is at its lowest level in 43 years and crimes of handling an offensive weapon have decreased 64% between 2007-08 and 2016-17. The number of under-18s in custody has reduced by 77% and there has been an 82% reduction in children referred to children’s hearings on offence grounds. The children’s hearings system is Scotland’s unique care and justice system for children and young people. It aims to ensure the safety and well-being of vulnerable children and young people through a decision-making lay tribunal called the children’s panel.
Tackling violent crime remains a key priority. Since 2007, the Scottish government has invested over £14m in violence reduction programmes for young people. The No Knives, Better Lives youth engagement programme has received over £3.4m funding since 2009, with 24 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities now involved.
No Knives, Better Lives is a national initiative which works with local organisations to provide information and support. The campaign aims to raise awareness of the consequences of carrying a knife and provides information and educational materials for use in schools and by other professionals, as well as health advertising campaigns and information on local activities and opportunities for young people. Research suggests that educational work has been particularly effective in making a difference.
I am pleased that Scotland’s experience is now being shared across the UK, with Met commissioner Cressida Dick visiting Glasgow and the VRU to explore what lessons can be learned.
The solicitor general for England and Wales, Robert Buckland QC, has accepted my invitation to come to Scotland to hear more about the whole system approach from the perspective of the prosecution service, particularly diversion from prosecution and our early and effective intervention model.
However, we are not complacent and the work continues to reduce levels of violent crime.