Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Nick Clegg Writes: The Key To Reducing Crime Is Focussing On What Works

Writing in the Guardian tomorrow, Nick Clegg sets out his vision for reducing crime and preventing re-offending.

In his piece Nick responds to reports of a coalition rift over mandatory sentencing for knife crimes and outlines the Liberal Democrats stance on these proposals.

I have always believed that the key to reducing crime is to focus on what works. It might sound obvious, but politicians can easily end up chasing headlines, trying to sound tough but actually making the situation worse. Instead of this, we need to focus on firm, practical solutions that address the root causes of crime and stop people offending in the first place.

The continuing fall in crime is one of the biggest success stories of this Coalition. Many people predicted that in tough economic conditions, crime would go up, as it always has done in the past. But it hasn't and we should be proud of that fact. Under this Government, crime is at its lowest levels since independent records began. Everybody has been shaken by the death of Ann Maguire and the notion that any teacher should lose their life in the classroom. It was especially poignant because she was clearly such a widely respected and loved teacher. But in the aftermath of terrible events such as this we have to be careful that we don't simply reach for headline grabbing solutions which don't necessarily work in practice.

That is why the Liberal Democrats have opposed a recent proposal to introduce a six month mandatory minimum sentence for someone who is convicted for possessing a knife for a second time. This is a minimum of six months in prison for simply having a knife, potentially even a penknife, in your pocket. Not, as I've read in some press reports, for a number of offences involving a knife. I've also read reports that Labour are thinking of playing politics with this issue. If they do, and back this proposed law just to appear tough in the eyes of voters and the right wing press, it will be clear that they have learnt nothing from their time in government when they let the prison population spiral out of control.

It's important to remember that there still should be consequences for carrying a knife. Prison is often going to be the right option and violent offenders who are a danger to the public ought to be behind bars. Too many young people wrongly think they need to carry a knife for self-defence. Carrying a knife is not cool - it's extremely stupid and dangerous. I'm a parent of young children. I can completely understand parents' fears that a misjudged word or the wrong kind of eye contact could end up with their child being attacked by someone with a knife.

When someone is caught carrying a knife, we need to do something about it. But six months in prison is not always the right answer. Imagine a vulnerable young girl, who is hanging round with members of a gang. She could be forced into carrying a knife by another gang member - it happens a lot. When stopped by the police, she doesn't mention that she was forced to carry the knife, fearing retribution from the gang if she does. Putting someone like that into prison could push them into the arms of hardened criminals, and let the gang leaders off the hook. Instead of prison, we need to divert vulnerable people away from gang culture.

We also need to give judges the flexibility to use their expertise and judgement, based on the facts of each case. In many cases it is entirely appropriate for judges to give people a prison sentence for carrying a knife. Whilst minimum sentencing might sound attractive in media headlines there is a serious risk it could undermine the role of the judges who are best placed to decide on sentencing.

This is why I believe that this proposed new law would be a step backwards. It would undermine the Government's progress in establishing a rehabilitation revolution, and reducing crime. We need to treat knife crime very seriously by letting judges choose the sentence to fit the crime. Turning the young offenders of today into the hardened criminals of tomorrow is not the answer.