Knife offenders avoiding jail hits record high

Knife offenders avoiding jail reaches record high
Knife offenders avoiding jail reaches record high

Record numbers of knife offenders are avoiding prison as judges deliver fewer custodial sentences because of the overcrowding crisis.

Fewer than one in four knife offenders (24.7 per cent) were sent to prison from September to December last year, the lowest on record.

It was down from 28 per cent in the previous quarter amid fears that jails in England and Wales could run out of space. It compares with a record 42.9 per cent in the second quarter of 2020.

The proportion of repeat knife offenders sent to jail also fell to a record low of 51.6 per cent from September to December, despite a law that tells courts perpetrators should be immediately imprisoned. That compares with a high of 71.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2020.

It comes as knife crime has risen nationally by 7.2 per cent to nearly 50,000 offences, close to the past record high in 2019 of 51,200, according to the Office for National Statistics. In London, which accounts for more than a third of all knife crime in England and Wales, it hit a record high of more than 14,500 offences last year.

There are fewer than 300 spaces left in men’s prisons, which have an operational capacity of about 84,000 despite measures introduced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to tackle overcrowding.

The MoJ data suggest courts are increasingly opting for suspended sentences, which enables offenders to avoid jail but with the prospect of being sent to prison if they breach the terms of their licence.

The shift follows an edict last year from Lord Justice Edis, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales, advising courts to jail fewer people because of the prison overcrowding crisis.

The Court of Appeal judge said that courts should “have an awareness of the impact of current prison population levels” as he quashed a man’s six-month jail term and replaced it with a suspended sentence.

Among those to have benefited is Jordon Axtell, 21, who avoided jail as a result of overcrowding after he was convicted of possession of a bladed article and supplying heroin and crack cocaine.

Judge Ian Pringle KC imposed a suspended two year jail sentence after saying that he had kept in mind the recent judgement by Lord Justice Edis in making his own.

Rory Geoghegan, the former Downing Street adviser and the founder of the Public Safety Foundation, warned that softer sentences would “only make knife crime worse”.

Mr Geoghegan, who previously served as a police officer, said: “Those carrying or thinking about carrying weapons need to know they face prison when caught. The failure to ensure sufficient prison places will already be making our streets less safe.”

Rick Muir, the director of the Police Foundation, an independent think tank, said: “There have been a few examples of judges explaining not imposing a custodial sentence because of the lack of space in prisons, which (whatever one thinks about the wider merits of a sentence) is a terrible position for the country to be in and points to the need for action to be taken to reduce prison overcrowding.”

The prison overcrowding crisis has forced Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, to introduce emergency measures, known as Operation Early Dawn, which means criminal suspects awaiting bail hearings are being held in police cells for days until prison places become available.

The operation has been activated ahead of the extension next week of the prisoner early release scheme which will, from May 23, allow offenders to be freed up to 70 days before their scheduled date for being freed.

A MoJ spokesman said: “While sentencing decisions are a matter for the independent judiciary, our decisive action to protect the public has meant that more knife-carrying criminals are being sent to jail and for longer than they were a decade ago.

“Knife offences have dropped since last year as we do everything possible to steer young people away from crime, and thanks to our tough sentencing reforms offenders who repeatedly carry a knife are more likely to face jail than 10 years ago.”

The MoJ also cautioned over the use of quarterly data because it could include cases awaiting final sentence.