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Revealed: Hundreds of repeat knife offenders spared jail despite ‘two strikes’ crackdown

More repeat knife offenders are being spared jail than at any time since a two-strike crackdown was introduced nearly a decade ago, The Independent can reveal.

Out of more than 4,000 adults caught carrying a knife or offensive weapon for at least the second time, nearly four in 10 were spared an immediate jail sentence in England and Wales in the year ending September 2023, exclusive analysis of Ministry of Justice figures shows.

The figures represent a record proportion of criminals being spared prison since a crackdown in 2015 which required repeat offenders to be jailed for a minimum of six months.

The proportion of repeat knife offenders caught with a blade being sent to prison has fallen, the latest figures show (Getty/iStock)
The proportion of repeat knife offenders caught with a blade being sent to prison has fallen, the latest figures show (Getty/iStock)

The findings by The Independent have escalated demands for a royal commission by the Police Federation of England and Wales which accused judges and magistrates of sentencing on “knee-jerk reactions” driven by budget and a lack of prison places.

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It comes during a surge in knife crime with the number of offences recorded by police in England and Wales jumping five per cent to 49,000 in the year to September 2023. Almost 45 per cent of murders in the same period involved a knife or sharp instrument.

The police federation said it was “no wonder the victims and the wider public feel let down”, while former Downing Street adviser on crime Rory Geoghegan claimed the “weakening” of punishments was making towns and cities less safe.

Hayley Ryall, whose 16-year-old son Mikey Roynon died after being stabbed in the neck at a birthday party in Bath last year, said: “Too many people are carrying knives, and until tougher sentences are given, what message are we sending out? People will continue to think they can get away with it and we will lose more lives like my son.”

Mason Rist (15, left) and Max Dixon (16) were killed in a knife attack in Bristol in January. Campaigners say stronger punishments need to be given to stop young people from carrying knifes (Avon and Somerset Police/PA Wire)
Mason Rist (15, left) and Max Dixon (16) were killed in a knife attack in Bristol in January. Campaigners say stronger punishments need to be given to stop young people from carrying knifes (Avon and Somerset Police/PA Wire)

The requirement to jail repeat knife offenders was the result of an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Act, nicknamed the “two-strike rule”, under former prime minister David Cameron.

It was further strengthened under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 when judges and magistrates were told only in “exceptional circumstances” could they justify not imposing an immediate prison sentence.

But the latest data reveals that 38 per cent of adult repeat offenders avoided an immediate jail sentence in the year ending September 2023, up from 35 per cent the year before and from a low of 28 per cent in 2019.

The proportion given suspended sentences rose to 23 per cent, a joint high from two years previously, while in 1 per cent of cases – 48 – the defendant got off with a discharge or a fine.

The new figures come in the wake of a series of high-profile stabbings across the UK – including the deaths of two teenage boys, aged 15 and 16, in Bristol in January – which have heightened concerns over the carrying of knives.

The latest NHS data also showed there were 3,775 hospital admissions with ”sharp object” attacks in England in the financial year 2022-23 – an increase of 4 per cent on 2014-15.

Steve Hartshorn, chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, is calling for a review on the sentences given to repeat knife offenders (Police Federation)
Steve Hartshorn, chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, is calling for a review on the sentences given to repeat knife offenders (Police Federation)

Steve Hartshorn, chair of the police federation, said: “Decisions on sentencing guidelines appear to be knee-jerk reactions, driven by budget and the availability of prison places rather than by logic or strategy, which hamstrings the ability of judges to pass appropriate sentences.”

He claimed a failure by judges and magistrates not to back up the work of police officers after identifying and arresting those carrying knives was a factor in a recent survey that found more than nine in 10 officers were suffering from low morale.

Mr Hartshorn also called for a royal commission – a type of committee appointed to investigate an issue – on the criminal justice system and public security, adding: “It is no wonder the victims and the wider public feel let down.”

Patrick Green, chief executive of the Ben Kinsella Trust, set up in the name of the 16-year-old student stabbed to death in Islington in 2008, said the figures suggested “concerning inconsistency” in applying sentencing guidelines.

He added: “Victims deserve justice, and this lack of enforcement creates a situation where they may feel failed by the system.

“Furthermore, it weakens the intended deterrent effect on habitual knife carriers, putting more young lives at risk. We urgently need a renewed focus on upholding the law and ensuring stronger consequences for repeat offenders.”

Hayley Ryall with her only son Mikey Roynon, who was stabbed in the neck at a house party in Bath last year (Hayley Ryall)
Hayley Ryall with her only son Mikey Roynon, who was stabbed in the neck at a house party in Bath last year (Hayley Ryall)

Mr Geoghegan founded the Public Safety Foundation after being a special adviser on justice and home affairs to Downing Street and a police inspector at Thames Valley Police.

He said: “Any weakening of the already lax punishments for those caught carrying knives, machetes, and other illegal weaponry on our streets will serve only to make our towns and cities less safe.

“Carrying an illegal weapon on the street is never acceptable, and to be caught doing so repeatedly is an all-too-common occurrence. It’s vital that those who are caught face tough consequences including prison sentences.”

Mr Geoghegan added that political parties should commit to expanding prison capacity to send an “unambiguous message” to offenders.

Latest figures show the prison population on 22 March was 87,700, 1,200 below the 88,900 operational capacity. But government forecasts predict the population will rise to 94,400 by March next year.

To help deal with the crisis, the government recently extended emergency proposals to allow the early release of prisoners.

A spokesperson for the Judicial Office, which represents judges, said prison overcrowding was not taken into consideration at sentencing. They said sentencing guidelines, along with case-specific aggravating and mitigating factors, could affect a sentence.

At the magistrates courts, offenders can be given an immediate prison sentence of up to six months, or be sent to the crown court for a potentially longer sentence.

Tom Franklin, chief executive of the Magistrates’ Association, said the situation was not a one-size-fits-all and that repeat knife offenders could be let off an immediate prison sentence for having a blade for a reasonable reason.

He said: “For example, some of those pleading guilty may have had the knife for a reasonable reason but do not meet the requirements for a statutory defence.”

He added that magistrates also take into consideration recommendations from the probation service when considering a jail sentence, which may suggest an offender’s behaviour could be managed in the community.

He said: “Although magistrates can and do impose such custodial sentences where appropriate, it is generally recognised that short custodial sentences are not very effective in promoting rehabilitation, and thus, where there are suitable alternatives to immediate custody, these are used instead.”

The MoJ said 33 per cent of all knife-carrying offences led to an immediate prison sentence in the year to September 2023, with the average prison sentence given being seven and a half months.

A spokesperson said: “Our latest figures show that criminals who carry knives or offensive weapons are being sent to jail more often and for longer than they were a decade ago following our decisive action to protect the public.

“We are doing everything possible to steer young people away from crime and thanks to our tough sentencing reforms, offenders who carry knives are more likely to face jail than 10 years ago.”