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Grim truth behind Scottish knife crime

GLASGOW'S murder rate is double that of London, according to new figures from the United Nations.

David McKenna of Victim Support Scotland  is calling on families to take measures to ensure their homes  are safer, such as locking up kitchen knives  Main image:  Mark Gibson
David McKenna of Victim Support Scotland is calling on families to take measures to ensure their homes are safer, such as locking up kitchen knives Main image: Mark Gibson

The latest figures will do nothing for Glasgow’s reputation or help an image tarnished by “booze and blades”.

According to the newly-published annual Global Study on Homicide, the homicide rate in Glasgow stood at 3.3 per 100,000, compared to 1.6 in the English capital.

The report also shows Scotland’s homicide rate remains higher than in many other European countries, including England and Wales, Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Figures for France were not available.

The toll of knife crime is highlighted in other statistics that reveal nearly half of all murders in Scotland were carried out with a sharp instrument in 2009-10.

The problem is not just confined to the west coast. Last week it emerged hospital accident and emergency departments in Lothian admitted 180 stabbing victims in the last year, almost double the number from four years ago.

David McKenna, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said while issues around the use of knives in youth culture and violent crime had to be addressed, many incidents involving knife crime occur within the home or between family and friends.

“We should be talking about how we create homes that are safer. For example, why are knife drawers not locked?” he said. “We lock up guns, so why can’t we think about knives in a similar way in terms of security -- in that we don’t just leave them lying around?”

Campaigners have called for tougher penalties and deterrents for those involved in knife crime. A group called Campaign for Change is lobbying for eight-month mandatory minimum sentences for possession of a knife and a minimum 20-year sentence for those who murder with a bladed weapon.

Tougher laws on knife crime in Scotland have increased the maximum sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife from two to four years. And earlier this year, Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC announced the maximum would apply to first-time offenders in some circumstances, for example possessing a knife on licensed premises.

At present, anyone convicted of a murder automatically receives a life sentence, with guidance to judges to impose a minimum 16-year punishment on those who kill with a knife. In England and Wales, the minimum for such offences is now 25 years.

Experts have argued there should be greater consistency and transparency around sentencing over knife crime in Scotland through the setting up of a Sentencing Council to issue and monitor guidelines for all types of crime. At present, sentencing operates mainly on a case-by-case basis in the courts, supplemented by legislation determining minimum and maximum punishments for certain offences.

For example, in February last year ,mother-of-two Tanya Pinnington, 28, was jailed for 18 months after twice slashing a man on the face in Wick, whereas a man who tried to murder a visitor at his sister’s home in Wishaw by attacking him with two knives after they got into a fight was jailed for four years and eight months in June this year. John Wilson, 43, was also ordered to be kept under supervision for a further two years because of the “calculated and deliberate” attack.

Many countries, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England and Wales, have a system of sentencing guidelines in place. Five years ago, a judicially-led commission recommended Scotland should do the same.

McKenna was a member of the commission. He said it had not been able to find evidence of sentencing consistency being applied. He said: “In every modern jurisdiction in the 21st century you need some kind of body that sets out the parameters of sentencing, as you have got to be open and transparent.

“Scotland needs a body that can set out sentencing guidelines that will inform not just the judges but also let the community and victims know -- and indeed the offenders -- what they might expect the sentence to be in a court of law.”

Neil Hutton, professor of criminal justice in Strathclyde University’s law school, was also one of the members. He said he was not aware of any evidence to suggest mandatory sentencing was effective in deterring people from offending.

“If you have guidelines you have got something against which you can measure consistency,” he said. “It doesn’t take away judicial discretion as most guideline systems allow judges to depart providing they give a reason.

“A sentencing council could pass a sentencing guideline on knife crime which would explain how judges are to go about sentencing in these cases -- what range of sentences are appropriate, what kind of factors would lead to a more severe sentence and perhaps to a lenient sentence. I think that would help the public to understand better what the courts are trying to do when sentencing.”

Three years ago, Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill said he was committed to introducing a Sentencing Council, saying he anticipated it would introduce guidelines making it clear the use of a weapon should, except in the most exceptional circumstances, result in a custodial sentence.

A Scottish Government spokesman said work is progressing to establish such a body, with legislation brought in last year which will pave the way for it to be set up “in due course” once costs and options have been considered.

He said: “The aim is for the Sentencing Council to take a considered look at sentencing and to increase input from communities, with a representative of victims sitting on the council as a key member. Once established it will be for the independent Sentencing Council themselves to determine what areas of work to take forward.

“However, issuing a sentencing guideline on knife crime could be a priority area for the Sentencing Council.”

But Labour justice spokeswoman Johann Lamont has called on the SNP to explain the “huge delay” in setting the body up.

“The SNP first announced its intention to set up a Scottish Sentencing Council over three years ago now and yet it is still not up and running,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kelly McGee, 28, from Lochwinnoch, who is a member of Campaign for Change, believes minimum mandatory sentences for knife crime are required.

Her brother Paul, a Scots Guardsman who was decorated for his bravery in Iraq, was stabbed to death in Renfrewshire in 2009 as he went to help a taxi driver who was being assaulted.

She said: “There is just no consistency in sentencing with knife crime and carrying a knife. It is coming up for two years since Paul died and it is not any easier. People need to be made aware of how destructive it is to families when it happens.”

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