Immediate jail terms for knife crime halve during pandemic

Knife crime and county lines will be the first topic discussed Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Immediate custodial sentences accounted for less than a fifth of all outcomes in the year ending March 2021 - Credit: Archant

The number of immediate custodial sentences handed out for knife and weapon offences halved in Suffolk over the last year, according to latest figures.

Just 32 people went straight to jail for possessing a knife or offensive weapon, or using one to threaten violence, compared to 64 the previous year.

Immediate custodial sentences accounted for less than one in five (19%) of all 171 outcomes for 197 offences in the year ending March 2021, compared to more than a third (34%) of 193 outcomes for 220 offences the previous 12 months.

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data showed that more people were instead dealt with by way of caution (27% compared to 18%), or with a community sentence (23% compared to 18%).

Almost two thirds (20) of those to avoid going straight to jail had at least one relevant previous conviction, including one with two previous convictions for using a knife of offensive weapon to threaten violence.

Offensive weapons include anything made or adapted to cause injury, or intended to be used as a weapon. 

The maximum sentence for possession offences is four years’ custody, with a minimum sentence of at least six months’ custody for anyone with a previous relevant offence on their record.

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Threatening with a weapon should carry a mandatory minimum sentence of six months.

Over the last 12 months, defence barristers across the country have argued that, due to the impact of Covid-19 on prison conditions, judges should seek alternatives to immediate custody when sentencing offenders.

Lawyers cited the Court of Appeal case of R v Manning, in which the Lord Chief Justice said that judges and magistrates should keep in mind that the impact of a custodial sentence was likely to be heavier during the pandemic because those in custody were confined to cells for much longer periods than would otherwise be the case, were unable to receive visits and were likely to be anxious about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

However, the use of suspended sentences for knife and weapon offences remained stable in Suffolk over the last year (from 20% to 19% of all outcomes). 

The MoJ said the fall in immediate custodial sentences was likely to have been affected by changes during the pandemic.

It said the law also allowed the courts to depart from minimum sentences if there are particular circumstances which would make it unjust.

It is also possible that an early guilty plea could result in an overall sentence below the minimum.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will seek to ensure that courts depart from minimum sentences only in exceptional circumstances, said the MoJ.

A spokesman added: “Those caught carrying a knife are more likely to be sent to jail, and for longer, than they were a decade ago.

“We are also recruiting 20,000 extra police officers, making it easier to use stop-and-search and ensuring the most serious offenders spend more time behind bars to protect the public.

“Meanwhile, our action to deliver speedier justice is showing positive results – outstanding crown court cases are dropping, and have fallen by around 70,000 in the magistrates’ since last summer.” 

According to the MoJ, offenders are more likely than in 2010 to receive an immediate custodial sentence and are less likely to receive a caution, while average custodial sentence lengths have generally increased over the last decade.

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