Page last updated at 09:41 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 10:41 UK

Knife sentencing 'not effective'

A selection of knives found by police
The study found young people were living in "constant fear" of attack

Longer jail terms are not an effective way of persuading teenagers to stop carrying knives, research suggests.

Pentonville Prison governor Nicola Marfleet interviewed 14 to 17-year-olds who had either been excluded from school or were serving time in custody.

She found most believed tough sentences were only meant to "scare" them, and they were more likely to be tagged.

The Home Office said the government was using a combination of deterrence and education to tackle the problem.

Rival gangs

The study found that some boys were carrying knives from the age of 11.

Ms Marfleet concluded that knife-crime prevention work must be targeted at this age group in order to be effective.

She interviewed about 24 boys in focus groups at pupil referral units in Hackney and Haringey, north London, and four boys one-to-one at Feltham Young Offender Institution in west London.

The young people I interviewed spoke about their 'enemies' who all carried knives and about how they were always anticipating attack
Nicola Marfleet,
Pentonville Prison governor

Possession of a knife carries a maximum jail term of four years, but most of the teenagers did not believe they would receive such a harsh punishment.

Two of those interviewed said that regardless of the possible penalty, they would not stop carrying a knife because they "needed" one for protection.

Almost all of the teenagers said they could not rely on parents or the police to protect them from their "enemies" - members of rival groups or gangs.

'Exacerbate problems'

Ms Marfleet said her research suggested that using prison sentences to deter knife possession had, at best, a limited impact on whether young people carried knives.

She said: "The young people I interviewed spoke about their 'enemies' who all carried knives and about how they were always anticipating attack, living under a constant fear of reprisal from other gangs who were armed and therefore they also needed to be.

"Several young people spoke honestly about their desire to live in a world where they didn't need to carry a knife, but most felt that it had 'gone too far now' and that there was nothing really that could be done to turn back the tide of knife crime."

Ms Marfleet's book, Why Carry a Weapon?, was written as part of a masters course in applied criminology at Cambridge University and was published by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The league's director Frances Crook said: "There has been a huge amount of investment by the government in policing, enforcement, the court process and custodial sentencing, but when we are talking about children as young as 11 carrying knives and a rising number of fatal stabbings in London, we have to question whether the criminal justice system alone can tackle this problem.

"We are particularly concerned that sending children to prison for carrying knives will only exacerbate their problems and expose them to more hardened criminal behaviour.

"We need to understand why children are carrying knives and tackle the causes directly."

'Less safe'

The Home Office said the government "does not apologise for its tough stance on enforcement in tackling knife crime".

But a spokesman added: "We are working closely with schools to educate young people about the dangers of carrying knives - making it clear that a knife makes you less safe, not more, and could easily be used against you.

"The police are also working with hospitals to share data on knife injuries and will be carrying out home visits and sending letters to parents of young people where intelligence suggests they are carrying knives.

"No one should be in any doubt of the consequences of carrying a knife. If you do so, you are now more much likely to get caught. When you're caught, you're more likely to be prosecuted. And if found guilty, you're more likely to go to prison."

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