"It is short-sighted to think the justice system alone is capable of solving this crisis"
It is still painful to recall the day I was woken up in the early hours of the morning by my phone ringing with the news that my brother Ben had been stabbed. I will never forget being in the room at the hospital when the nurses told us he was going to die, mum and dad being rushed to his bedside while the rest of us, left behind in a waiting room, collapsed in grief. Later came the moment when we were taken to see him after he had died. As we looked down at his beautiful face, totally unmarked despite all he had been through, it became so obviously, painfully real that he was never coming home.
Over the weekend it was the turn of the families of Jodie Chesney and Yousef Makki, at 17 both were just a year older than my little brother, to go through their own version of that awful experience. Nobody could fail to be moved by the flowers and cards left for Jodie in Harold Hill, Romford, or the tributes from Yousef’s fellow pupils at Manchester Grammar School where he was described as an A* pupil. One hundred and sixty miles apart, two communities were united in terrible grief for the loss of two beautiful young people who had their whole lives ahead of them.
As we know from the troubling statistics on this issue, theirs are far from the only families who now have an empty place at the dinner table because of the rise in knife crime over recent years. This is not for lack of trying.
Those of us involved in the Ben Kinsella Trust, set up shortly after his death in 2008, have been working tirelessly to keep others from having to repeat our experience and the charity has had many successes. In September 2008 we took a leading part in The People’s March where hundreds turning out to demand changes to knife crime laws. In March 2010 we had a major breakthrough when then justice secretary Jack Straw announced the introduction of “Ben’s Law,” raising the mandatory minimum sentence for a knife murder from 15 years to 25 years.
For a while, efforts to tackle knife crime seemed to be working, and from 2011 to 2014 the number of offences involving a knife fell year on year. But since then it has been a very different story. Last year was the worst for knife crime since 2010 and the awful carnage on our streets has continued into 2019.
The fact is that politicians got distracted. When knife crime started falling they convinced themselves that Britain had become a less violent society and their focus shifted. Ministers stopped looking for new ways to drive the numbers even lower and began to cut back or replace some of the schemes and initiatives that had helped to bring them down in the first place.
Cuts to youth services took frontline workers out of circulation and led to the closure of youth clubs - even though those workers were often a major role model for young people with turbulent home lives and the closure of clubs has been a boon for gang recruitment. Meanwhile, the police moved on to other priorities.
There’s no quick fix to reverse this trend. Properly resourced policing and appropriate sentences for offenders have a role to play. Stop and search, for example, is a useful tactic for containing or diverting knife crime.
However, it is short-sighted to think the justice system alone is capable of solving this crisis. We also need long-term investment in a range of measures that tackle underlying issues of inequality, deprivation and childhood trauma as well as focusing on education and prevention work.
For this to work and end the cycle of knife violence, we need a commitment from politicians that lasts beyond the duration of the current crisis. Otherwise in another ten years we’ll just be back here again, laying more flowers, lamenting the loss of another promising young life, and wondering how and why we ever let it come to this.
Brooke Kinsella is the founder of the Ben Kinsella Trust