Knife-crime prevention orders likely to criminalise vulnerable children

By agency reporter
March 26, 2019

Home Office proposals to create knife crime prevention orders, which are due to be debated by MPs for the first time on Tuesday 26 March 2019, could criminalise thousands of children who are themselves victims of slavery, trafficking or criminal exploitation.

A joint briefing by the Prison Reform Trust and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, sent to MPs ahead of the House of Commons debate, warns that there are insufficient safeguards built into the proposed legislation to ensure that the full circumstances of the child are taken into account by the police applying for the orders and the court before an order is imposed.

As well as unnecessarily criminalising vulnerable children, this could lead to inappropriate restrictions being imposed which could place the child at increased risk of neglect or abuse.

The proposed new orders are civil orders which will be imposed on children as young as 12 for a second incidence of suspected knife possession in a two-year period on the basis of probability rather than a criminal standard of proof.

This is despite the severe, lengthy and potentially unlimited restrictions which could be imposed as part of an order, and the punitive criminal sanctions for breach of up to two years in custody.

The Ministry of Justice has acknowledged this lack of evidence on effectiveness of such orders, with Justice Secretary David Gauke originally opposing the proposals on these grounds. He stated that he did not want to see large numbers of young people sent to custody for breaches of civil orders, and any new measures must be “preventative, proportionate, and affordable”.

Recent reports by the Children’s Commissioner, the National Crime Agency and Ofsted have highlighted the scale of children being groomed into criminal activity. The Children’s Commissioner has estimated that 34,000 children in England are either in a gang or on the periphery of a gang and have experienced violence in the past 12 months. Of these, just 6,560 children involved or associated with gangs are known to children’s services or youth offending teams.

The yearly summary of referrals to the National Referral Mechanism show that victims of trafficking and modern slavery reported to the authorities has risen by more than 80 per cent in two years. Announcing the figures, National Crime Agency Deputy Director Roy McComb, said: “Of particular concern is the increase in referrals made for ‘county lines’ type exploitation. These are often vulnerable individuals – often children - who are exploited by criminal gangs for the purposes of drug trafficking.”

Ofsted recently reported that for children at risk of knife carrying, “the highest level of risk is for those children who have been groomed into gangs, for the purposes of criminal exploitation.”

Under the proposed legislation, applicants for an order are required to “consult” with a youth offending team before applying for an order from a court. However, the form of this consultation is not specified and will be decided in accompanying guidance. Furthermore, there is no requirement for the applicant or court to consult with a youth offending team ahead of the imposition of an interim order.

Anti-social behaviour orders contained a similar duty for applicants to consult with youth offending teams in cases where the defendant is aged under 18. However, in practice, the Home Affairs Committee found that YOTs were not always consulted.

The briefing highlights concerns that the lack of sufficient safeguards means that orders could be imposed on children subject to criminal exploitation by older adults, and who ought to be referred to children’s social care services or assessed as potential victims of modern slavery, not subject to punitive civil orders.

It could also lead to inappropriate requirements being placed on children which could put them at increased risk of abuse or neglect. For instance, it could lead to curfew requirements being imposed which put the child at increased risk of violence in the home.

A wide coalition of professional bodies and voluntary sector organisations working for and on behalf children and young people in the criminal justice system have expressed strong reservations about the proposed orders, including the Magistrates’ Association, the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, the Local Government Association, the Probation Institute, and the Children’s Society.

Commenting, Mark Day, Head of Policy and Communications at the Prison Reform Trust, said: “These ill-thought through proposals are being rushed through parliament without any effort to consult with the communities and organisations who will be most affected. Knife crime ASBOs are likely to become a backdoor to custody for thousands of vulnerable children and young people, instead of directing them into the care and support they need. We hope MPs do the right thing on Tuesday and send these plans back to the drawing board.”

Pippa Goodfellow, Director of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said: “Young people in our communities feel unsafe and fearful of being seriously harmed or losing their lives. Many are being coerced into criminal activity by adults who exploit their vulnerability. Punitive sanctions and the threat of custody will not make these children feel safe or protect them, and are unlikely to discourage them from carrying a knife. Knee-jerk reactions to complex issues risk being counterproductive and deeply harmful.”

* Read the briefing on Knife Crime Prevention Orders here

* Standing Committee for Youth Justice http://scyj.org.uk/

* Prison Reform Trust http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/

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