In light of the recent and tragic killing of Ava White, we look at the factors behind why people carry out such acts, and compare approaches to tackling serious youth violence…
Online debate surrounding what needs to be done to tackle serious youth violence has been sparked by the killing of a young girl in Liverpool.
12-year-old Ava White was stabbed and murdered in the middle of Liverpool City Centre exactly a month away from Christmas. Four teenage boys have been arrested in connection with the incident. It is another tragic episode to add to what is an increasingly long series of violent incidents in the city.
There have been calls on social media for the parents of the alleged to be ‘locked-up’. People have suggested the reintroduction of capital punishment along with calls for longer prison sentences and tougher policing measures from others. Some people blame social media, ‘gang’ culture, and bad parenting.
Can we really lay the blame squarely at parents for the actions of their children? Can we honestly believe- given the evidence- that tougher prison sentences will make a difference? One tweet on social media said somewhat sarcastically “No lad, don’t bring your blade out. The government has just put sentences up 20 years’…said no scally ever.”
Let us be clear. This is not a defence of the indefensible. The point at which a person chooses to carry a knife and use it to cause harm is the point in which their personal responsibility and accountability trumps all. What we are interested in here is how somebody gets to such a point, and what can be done to stop it.
According to the Home Office, there were 612 knife related incidents in Liverpool in 2013. By 2018 this almost doubled. This trend is similar across most major cities and represents a worrying increase and the need for an urgency to strategise effectively against it.
Yet the strategies we see in England are ones that place too much focus on challenging knife crime at the point when damage is already done. The London Knife Crime Strategy of 2017 suggests that “self-defence and protection” are the reasons why people carry knives. This may be true in some instances, but what the strategy fails to provide is thorough, precise, identifiable, and aptly funded preventative measures. There is plenty of talk of ‘targeting lawbreakers’, ‘offering ways out of crime’, and ‘keeping deadly weapons off the streets.’ All of these are noble, but each fails to address some of the reasons why we are seeing a reoccurrence of such violence.
Serious youth violence is a complex issue and there are many factors as to why people act the way they act. These factors include deprivation, education, trauma, environment, socio-economic disparities, and opportunities to name a few. There is a real sense of disenfranchisement, and this can lead to attitudes that cultivate a space where tragedy can take place.
So, if we know the factors, and we know it is a complex issue, it can feel confusing as to why it is often not treated as such. Instead of funding mental health services, meaningful youth provision and stimulating facilities, investment in jobs, culture, sport, and guaranteeing pathways and access to social care and early intervention services when needed to ensure parents are supported and have a positive environment to raise children in, it seems much easier for government to put in place longer prison sentences as a ‘deterrent’ that never works.
Dr Baz Driesinger, one of the leaders of Incarceration Nations Network has studied prisons and the effect that longer sentences has on people not committing crime. Her organisation explains that “overall, prisons are an outmoded, anti-innovative method of increasing public safety and reducing crime”. This again reinforces the bewilderment of the government policy and approach that we see to issues discussed.
Yet there is hope. If we look further North to Scotland, we are able to see a public health approach to serious youth violence that has saw violent incidents reduce dramatically. In 2005 a Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) was set up to address knife crime. In 2004/05 there were 137 homicides. This number was reduced to more than half over several years.
But what did they do?
They adopted a public health and holistic approach to violence through partnership working with social care, NHS, and schools to look at tackling the issue at the root. Properly funded community services and a community centred approach saw violence reduce dramatically. The VRU explains that “public health isn’t just about medicine, it draws on a broad range of knowledge from epidemiology and sociology to criminology, education and economics. For public health to work it’s crucial that as many people, and organisations, from across society work together”.
This is a stark contrast to the approach that we see in England where violent incidents continue to rise and an increasingly punitive attitude to young people creates an environment where consequences lose their meaning. If we are to see a reduction in the tragic incidents we have seen, then a public health approach must be a priority to ensure parents and young people can nurture an environment that produces feelings of safety and comfort, as opposed to fear and anger.