Police chiefs clash with Executive over jail terms for knife-carrying
SENIOR police officers have demanded mandatory jail terms of 18 months for anyone who carries a knife, putting themselves on a collision course with Scottish ministers.
Scotland's police superintendents believe new legislation from the Executive does not go far enough in tackling the country's blade culture.
But Hugh Henry, the deputy justice minister, yesterday rejected the suggestion, saying such a move would "not solve the problem".
The Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice Bill, now going through Holyrood, will strengthen police powers of arrest for people suspected of carrying a knife. It will also double the maximum penalty for carrying a knife from two to four years, and raise the age at which a person can buy a non-domestic knife from 16 to 18.
But in written evidence to Holyrood's Justice 2 Committee, the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents said the provisions did not go far enough in confronting "the problems and issues associated with knife crime in Scotland".
"The association has previously expressed an opinion that the proposed increase in maximum sentence for conviction on indictment from two to four years will have limited effect, as the vast majority of such offences are dealt with summarily," said Peter Murphy, the association's research and development officer.
"In addition to the amendments proposed, the association suggests a provision be included for mandatory sentencing of 18 months imprisonment for conviction on summary for offensive weapon offences."
He went on: "Parallels may be drawn with the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing for drink driving offences, which was seen as a necessary step in influencing driver behaviour in relation to alcohol.
"It is felt that such a similar move would contribute substantially in tackling the knife crime culture in Scotland."
However, during a question-and-answer session in front of the Justice 2 committee, Mr Henry said a mandatory 18- month sentence for carrying knives would be unworkable and would lead to injustices.
He said: "I think the suggestion, while intended to send a clear message, actually has problems in its inflexibility. And if you recall previous debates in this parliament, I think representatives of all political parties except one actually opposed mandatory sentences for carrying a knife."
He said that if the suggestion was adopted, he could imagine a scenario where someone carrying a knife for legitimate purposes was handed an 18-month jail sentence. That would be "completely unreasonable".
"To specifically fix a mandatory sentence would to some extent remove the flexibility of court to reflect the facts and individual circumstances," he said.
Mr Henry added that even when someone was found to be carrying a knife unlawfully, the court must be given leeway to impose a penalty that reflected the particular circumstances of the offence.
"I don't think that this particular proposal would either solve the problem or help, and indeed could have unintended consequences."
When asked by Kenny MacAskill, the SNP's justice spokesman, how many people would be charged on indictment just for carrying a knife - and therefore would be subject to the four-year maximum jail term - Mr Henry said that was a matter for procurator fiscals.
Pressed on whether he could imagine such a scenario, Mr Henry said: "Potentially, if someone has a previous record, then it could happen. But it's not for me to comment or suggest."
According to Executive figures, between 1998 and 2003, knives were involved in 323 of the 667 murders committed in Scotland. And in the same period there were 14,463 convictions for handling an offensive weapon.
As well as raising the maximum sentence for carrying a blade, the Executive also intends to increase the minimum age for buying knives and introduce a licensing scheme for the sale of "non-domestic" knives.
Retailers have voiced fears that a licensing scheme will have little effect in reducing crime. The Scottish Retail Consortium argued that young people wanting to carry a knife were more likely to get it from their own kitchen than go to a shop and buy one.
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