We sigh at the senseless gun violence in the US. Many of us marvel at the nation that prioritizes protecting their Second Amendment right over the safety of their children. The same children whose trivial fears of being picked last in PE have now been replaced by the prospect of school shootings, and a lifetime of PTSD.

This same frustration, however, does not seem to extend to the countless teenagers who are murdered by their peers in the UK.

Eyes Wide Shut

Knife crime was initially dismissed as isolated inner-city crime or ethnic hooliganism when this problem became topical in 2018. Now harrowing stories of 12-year-olds fresh from primary school slaughtering each other dominate the news. So will we finally address an epidemic that has reached an all-time boiling point?

In the twelve months between March 2021 and March 2022, 47,167 offences involving a sharp weapon were recorded in England. This marks a 10 per cent increase on the previous year and a 46 per cent increase across England and Wales compared to figures in March 2012.

Despite such worrisome statistics, a study conducted by the National Youth Agency found that: ‘whilst more young people are being exposed to and are experiencing crime, less are actively engaged in crime.’

This report is synonymous with the rising reports of young people killed in ‘chance encounters’ — where the victim is unknown to the perpetrator. Most unforgettably, the murder of 12-year-old Ava White who was fatally stabbed to death last November is one such case.

Chance encounters inflict fear at the core of a community. Unlike gang-related killings, it is impossible to detach from the crime. It feels personal because your child, sister or friend could become the next victim. These random acts of horrific violence entrench mistrust and suspicion within the communities afflicted, inciting hatred for the perpetrators.

Retribution is not the solution

It is easy to criminalise young offenders and resort to calls for punitive measures to gain retribution for those affected. However, as a nation, we need to address the real issue. Children are killing their peers.

When 13- and 14-year-olds can murder, it does not simply reflect a heinous crime but an additional systemic failure to adequately socialise our youth.

Ava White’s killer took a life in a senseless and unwarranted attack. However, he also lacked the safety, support and boundaries that a home should provide. Witnessing domestic abuse from a young age, being a victim of assault, and facing exploitation from local crime rings were all factors leading to his ultimate violent act. By the age of fifteen, the boy from a broken home was a convicted murderer.

This is a tale of a boy who succumbed to his environment. To prevent future victims, we must address the positive association between ‘adverse childhood experiences and poor mental health’ amongst those involved with youth and gang violence.

A study authored by the National Youth Agency (NYA) in 2019 identified three main factors for knife crime:

• Structural issues such as inequality, deprivation and social trust

• Cultural issues such as neighbourhood disorder and exposure to violence

• Loss of year-round and voluntarily accessible youth services

They also highlighted the influence of prior involvement with crime and the misuse of alcohol and drugs. Unemployment, economic deprivation, exclusion and truancy as well as psychological conditions such as hyperactivity were too seen as key risk factors for knife crime.

Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) longitudinal cohort study of prisoners, found that of 1,435 adult prisoners interviewed:

  • 24 per cent had been in care at some point during their childhood
  • 18 per cent of prisoners stated that they had a family member with an alcohol problem and 14 per cent with a drug problem
  • 59 per cent of prisoners stated that they suffered from truancy in school
  • 63 per cent had been suspended or temporarily excluded, and 42 per cent stated that they had been permanently excluded or expelled

These statistics strongly indicate that we are failing to protect children who are ‘victims of circumstance and in need of safeguarding and positive support.’

A 2019 APPG on Knife Crime Report evidenced a ‘correlation between areas where youth services had suffered the largest cuts, and where knife crime had risen the most.’

And the recommendation?

‘The Youth Violence Commission also highlights that a well-resourced youth service is necessary in the prevention of knife crime.’

Under austerity, accessible provisions for those who needed state support the most were cut. Between 2008/09 and 2016/17 services to young people faced a 62.25 per cent reduction in spending. Without these services, vulnerable children lack an outlet from the systemic issues that face them.

To prevent further senseless violence, we must introduce early intervention policies to ensure no child is left behind. We should also strive to support rather than merely punish misled young people within the criminal justice system.

Let us learn from the mistakes of the USA. Don’t let our children become another statistic.

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