19:07, February 28 104 0 theguardian.com

2018-02-28 19:07:06
Longer jail terms likely for knife and acid possession

Adults convicted of possessing a knife or acid for use as an offensive weapon in public are likely to face longer prison terms when new sentencing guidelines for judges in England and Wales are introduced.

Recommendations by the Sentencing Council published on Thursday state that the starting point for a judge assessing punishment for anyone over 18 caught with a “bladed article” in a public place should be six months in jail. For young people, the starting point is four months.

One significant mitigating factor judges must consider – which permits them to impose non-custodial sentences – is whether it is the first time a defendant has been arrested with a knife.

Those convicted of a second possession offence are subject to statutory minimum terms, meaning that in most circumstances they will go to prison. Offenders who make threats with knives or highly dangerous weapons will always receive sentences longer than six months.

For those convicted of carrying a knife in a school or prison, the punishment will be much higher, with an initial reference point of 18 months’ jail before the individual facts of the case are taken into consideration.

Acid is explicitly listed as a potentially dangerous weapon for the first time in the judicial guidelines, in response to the rise in the number of people having corrosive and disfiguring liquids thrown at them.

Those who film their crimes and post them on social media will face tougher punishments. Other factors to be assessed will include the age, maturity, background and circumstances of young offenders.

The guidelines, which come into effect in June, “may ... lead to some increases in sentence levels, predominantly in relation to adults convicted of possession offences”, the Sentencing Council acknowledges.

Rosina Cottage QC, a member of the council, said: “Too many people in our society are carrying knives. If someone has a knife on them, it only takes a moment of anger or drunkenness for it to be taken out and for others to be injured or killed. These new guidelines give courts comprehensive guidance to ensure that sentences reflect the seriousness of offending.”

The guidelines are not directly comparable with previous Sentencing Council recommendations. They take account of recent legislation and court of appeal judgments. They are intended, according to the council, to “reflect parliament’s concern about the social problem of offenders carrying knives”.

The council promotes greater consistency in sentencing across courts in England and Wales by issuing and updating guidelines for judges, while aiming to increase public understanding of the decisions made by judges.

The latest figures show that knife crime in England and Wales rose by 21% to 37,443 offences in the year to last September – the highest level for seven years.

Welcoming the guidelines, the justice minister Rory Stewart said: “Knives ruin lives and fracture communities, and carrying a weapon is often an indicator of further devastating crimes to come.

“We must equally recognise the emerging threat of other weapons, such as acid. Those caught with any offensive weapon must feel the full force of the law.”

The guidelines respond to concerns about minimum prison terms raised by some lawyers and others who took part in the consultation.

The guidelines explain: “In considering whether a statutory minimum sentence would be ‘unjust in all of the circumstances’, the court must have regard to the particular circumstances of the offence and the offender.

“If the circumstances of the offence, the previous offence or the offender make it unjust to impose the statutory minimum sentence then the court must impose either a shorter custodial sentence than the statutory minimum provides or an alternative sentence.”

The guidelines do not apply to situations where knives have been used; those are dealt with as wounding, murder or manslaughter charges.