Monday, May 10, 2021

There is rightly a lot of concern about a spike in knife-crime. According to the Home Office  there was a 16% increase in offences involving a knife crime or sharp instrument in the 12 months ending in March 2018. That is over 40,000 offences with 38 of the 44 police forces recording a rise in knife crime since 2011. And of course, every one of those represents lives ruined or worse. 

The situation is particularly acute in London and other major conurbations with young black and minority ethnic teenage boys and men disproportionately affected, as both victims and perpetrators. Whilst there is always a danger of talking up a moral panic there is clearly something going on.

Unfortunately, much of the current shopping list of possible causes focuses on systemic changes:

  • police budget cuts
  • gang violence
  • disputes between drug dealers.
  • decline in the use by police of stop and search
  • young people being more inclined to carry knives because they don’t think that they will be stopped
  • self-protection – others are carrying.

Which, not surprisingly, means that proposed solutions respond accordingly:

  • Increased police numbers
  • Increase stop and search
  • Increased prison sentences

But all of this misses a fundamental point. The early life experiences of many, if not most, of those carrying knives means that they are likely be neurologically wired to expect life to be dangerous.  And, further, that the same neurological wiring means that they may not be adept at making good choices, balancing risk or planning.  Under those circumstances it is not quite so irrational for an individual to come to entirely the wrong conclusion and feel the need to carry a knife. And increased sentences or prison sentences are unlikely to change that decision.

Why is this? The science is clear; toxic stress in early life raises stress levels for a prolonged period. This toxic stress is caused by abuse, neglect, poverty, an incarcerated parent, bullying domestic violence and so on. Left unchecked, these raised stress hormone levels alter the very architecture of the brain at a key formative time for development. The result is that by the time a child reaches its teens, having raised stress hormones, being ready for ‘fight-or-flight’ is the neurological norm. You are wired to expect danger and catastrophe. The parts of our brains that allow to make choices and prevent overload are underdeveloped and so defence and anger are the frequent response.

The policy response must be based on an understanding of this science. It requires us to better support the first 1000 days of a child’s life so that toxic stress is reduced and removed. It means supporting parents, carers, teachers, police, youth workers, grandparents and young people themselves to understand the impact of early life trauma. It means identifying children who have experienced toxic stress in nurseries and primary schools so that they can be supported to develop executive function before puberty. And it means having a youth, education and criminal justice system that understands the life and world of a young person carrying a knife and the traumatic impact of their personal brain story that got them to that point.

Understanding this does not mean condoning. It does mean that we won’t spend a lot of time building a moral panic, passing laws and achieving very little. It doesn’t mean condemning a generation to the lottery of their upbringing. 

What it does mean is that we are serious about not just tackling knife crime but of helping all children and young people to achieve the very best that we can.

If you want see how WAVE can help your organisation better understand the roots of behaviour then:



Peter Watt is Strategic Projects Director at WAVE. This article was first published in March 2019.