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A Perspective on the UK's Knife Crime Issue

Given the current concerns about knife crime, gangs and young people in the UK, I thought I would share some insights that I have just come across in the latest book by Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now.

The premise of the entire book, Bill Gate’s ‘new favourite book of all time’ according to the cover, is the use of data and evidence to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that things aren’t as bad as they seem. They might feel bad, they may even be bad, but they have been worse and, what’s more, we often know what to do to make things better if we use our brains more and our emotions less.

With regard to violent crime, Pinker draws on the research of historical criminologist Manuel Eisner to point how out such behaviour has significantly decreased over time, with the occasional blip such as a ‘boom in personal violence’ in most Western countries during the 60s. However, examining how such occasional spikes in crime were addressed at the time is insightful, especially when we challenge the notion of what Pinker calls ‘root-causism’ - ‘the pseudo-profound idea that every social ill is a symptom of some deep moral sickness’.

If we come at the issue from a ‘what works’ angle, with lessons taken from across the world, including some of the most dangerous countries on earth, Pinker is able to draw the following conclusions:

‘Forget root causes. Stay close to the symptoms – the neighborhoods and individuals responsible for the biggest wedges of violence – and chip away at the incentives and opportunities that drive them.’

In the absence, or perceived absence, of law and order, a Hobbesian ‘get them before they get you’ approach takes over, especially among ‘loosely acquainted young men over turf, reputation, or revenge’. However, strong law enforcement and punishments serve to disincentivise the perpetrators which relieves others of the need for what Pinker calls ‘belligerent self-defense’.

What is important too is that the regime in charge of law enforcement is seen to be legitimate, with spikes in crime rates occurring ‘in the decades in which people question their society and government’.

Also of interest is that such a stance is not one that necessarily plays into the hands of the ‘hang ‘em and flog’ em brigade’. As Pinker is at pains to point out, ‘While the threat of harsher punishments is both cheap and emotionally satisfying, it’s not particularly effective’ and he cites what he calls Eisner’s ‘one-sentence summary’ of what experience and statistics combine to suggest society needs:

‘An effective rule of law, based on legitimate law enforcement, victim protection, swift and fair adjudication, moderate punishment, and humane prisons is critical to sustainable reductions in lethal violence’.

Pinker goes on to quote a vast meta-analysis by Abt and Winship who concluded that ‘focussed deterrence’ is the ‘single most effective tactic for reducing violent crime’. Here, crime hot spots and potential perpetrators are subject to a ‘laser-like focus’ carrying unequivocal message that we will help you if you stop your crimes or we will put you in prison if you carry on.

Underlining how interrupting patterns of behaviour through cognitive behavioural therapy is also ‘provably effective’, Pinker ends his section with a list of what clearly and demonstrably does not work:

‘…slum clearance, gun buybacks, zero-tolerance policing, wilderness ordeals, three-strikes-and-you’re-out mandatory sentencing, police-led drug awareness classes, and “scared straight” programs…’

I share this with you for you to draw your own conclusions as well as to help inform the debate we are having currently about schools, exclusions, crime and what do to. [ITL]

Ian Gilbert is the founder of Independent Thinking. Check out more of his writing at his Independent Thinking Press page here.

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