Knife Crime in England and Wales

18 April 2018

In 2017, there were just under 39,600 recorded offences involving the use of a knife or sharp instrument in England and Wales. That’s the highest level recorded over a year since comparable figures began in 2011.

Part of that is due to improvements in how the police record crime, so not all of the rise is likely to be genuine. But the Office for National Statistics stresses that the recent rises will reflect more knife crime happening:

"Today’s figures show that, for most types of offence, the picture of crime has been fairly stable, with levels much lower than the peak seen in the mid-1990s. Eight in ten adults had not experienced any of the crimes asked about in our survey in the latest year.

“However, we have seen an increase in the relatively rare, but "high-harm" violent offences such as homicide, knife crime and gun crime, a trend that has been emerging over the previous two years.”

Normally the Crime Survey for England and Wales is a better indicator of trends over time than the police figures. But knife crime is one of the exceptions, because offences involving weapons are relatively rare—less than 1% of all recorded crimes are offences involving the use of a knife. That means a sample survey isn’t very good at picking up changes.

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What counts as knife crime?

’Knife crimes’ can fall under a number of offences, depending if they’re recorded as involving a “knife or sharp instrument”. The ones where this is measured include homicide, attempted murder, threats to kill, various kinds of assault, robbery, rape and sexual assault.

About half of knife offences in 2015/16 were a form of assault, and about 40% were robberies. Homicides account for less than 1% of all recorded offences. A few years ago, the figures were the other way round—with robberies being more common than assaults

The available figures suggest that when they happen recorded knife crimes are becoming more severe, though that may partly be the product of improved recording practices again.

At the same time, sharp instruments account for between 30% and 40% of all homicides, making them the most common single method of killing.

It’s also a crime to possess an offensive weapon unlawfully in public. In 2017, there were almost 21,000 offences dealt with in the criminal justice system for possessing a knife or sharp instrument.

London accounts for the bulk of offences

In the year to March 2017, just over a third of all knife offences—about 12,000—happened in London. London only makes up 15% of the population of England and Wales, although a lot of people commute into London on a regular basis as well, so this isn’t an exact comparison.

London—like other urban parts of the country—tends to have higher knife crime rates per head of population than rural areas. For every 100,000 residents there were 137 offences in 2016/17, compared to just four offences in Surrey.

Knife crimes in London have risen 24% since 2015/16, and have been growing since early 2016. They’re now at a similar recorded level to 2012, although the improvements to police recording practices in that period still blur the comparison.

Convictions are more likely to result in a custodial sentence

Looking just at offences involving possessing a knife, in 2017 about 63% of convictions resulted in a custodial sentence of some form. This has been on a rising trend since 2008, when 42% of offences resulted in custody.

The average sentence length for these offences is 7.5 months, up from 5.3 months in 2008.

The Ministry of Justice has a summary of key events since 2008 which have influenced criminal policy on knife crime.

Hospital admissions have also risen in recent years, though are below the 2000s peak

It’s not enough to look at crime data alone. According to the House of Commons Library: “Police and courts crime data is dependent on offences coming to the attention of the authorities, which is one of their main weaknesses. To get a more rounded view on knife crime it is useful to supplement this information with alternative sources such as NHS hospital data.”

In 2016/17, there were over 4,400 hospital cases due to someone having been assaulted by a sharp object. That’s an 8% increase on the year before, and above the low point in recent years of 3,700 in 2013/14.

Looking back in time, there were as many as 5,700 hospital cases in 2006/07.

As the Commons Library also points out, 91% of people admitted to hospital for assault by sharp objects in the last few years are men.

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