Forget zero tolerance policies on knife crime

Why are some politicians so keen on zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences? Picture: PA
Why are some politicians so keen on zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences? Picture: PA
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Mandatory sentences not the answer, says William McIntyre

I arrived at court the other morning to be met by an elderly woman in the foyer who was looking lost and confused.

“Is my lawyer here?’ she asked.

To which, not unnaturally, I responded: “Who is your lawyer?’”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve forgot.”

Failing memory comes with age, someone once said, I can’t remember who, and it brings me on to the subject of corn-on-the-cob. I like it. In fact, so fond am I of those golden kernels of goodness, that last year I cast-off a lifetime of horticulture-avoidance to try and grow a crop of my own.

After all, some seeds, a few grow-bags, how hard could it be? Very, as it turned out, and, come harvest time all I had to show for my efforts was a forest of unproductive, unsightly and highly-tangled vegetation you could have lost the Jolly Green Giant in.

Fortunately, I have, over the years, accrued a host of tools and implements from various relatives who are probably still wondering what happened to them. The one I chose for the job of pruning my maize plantation was a lock-knife with a double-blade that could both cut and saw. Think Jagged Edge but without Glenn Close getting sweaty with Jeff Bridges.

Whatever, it made short work of the woody stalks and after 20 minutes of hard labour, the brown wheely-bin was full and I was off in search of Saturday morning breakfast.

Smash/cut to the corner shop, bacon and rolls on the counter, me delving into a pocket and coming out with a handful of cash and with, what in other circumstances might later have been described on indictment as, Crown Label 1: A Lock Knife.

Transporting a knife from A to B, eg cutlery shop to home, is all very well, as is having one with you for the purpose of putting it to good use; it’s amazing the number of accused persons caught with a chib who are actually on their way to fit their granny’s new stair carpet; but I was bereft of such reasonable excuse, for, as an effective defence, forgetting there is a blade in one’s pocket simply isn’t going to cut it.

Fortunately, the shop keeper was unconcerned, interested only in robbing me of an exorbitant price for a packet of Ayrshire’s finest, and, yet, as there was still some distance between myself and my frying pan, I could not help but worry. What if I was stopped and searched? The police did a lot of that: 2,000 a week in Scotland. The knife would be found and I, as a zero-tolerance case, would have a weekend in the cells and a sheriff and jury trial to look forward to.

Walking briskly (running was way too suspicious) I made my way home, shades of the prison house beginning to close. And then I thought: thank goodness for Kenny MacAskill; not something a lot of us criminal lawyers have been thinking lately.

For although the Lord Advocate has introduced a zero-tolerance policy for those found with knives, at least the intervention of the cabinet minister for justice thwarted the Labour party’s plan to impose a six-month minimum mandatory prison sentence. A measure only narrowly avoided by a 63-61 vote against.

I understand the need to clamp down on knife crime, but why are some politicians so keen on zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences? What’s wrong with allowing procurators fiscal, sheriffs and judges to distinguish blade-wielding thugs out looking for blood from forgetful, reluctant gardeners who just want a bacon roll?

The combination of zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences is the criminal justice equivalent of haud-it and dod-it. If the only tool you give the judiciary is a hammer, then each person the local prosecutor is forced by the Crown Office to put in the dock is a nail that must be soundly bashed, no matter the mitigation.

No matter, thanks to Mr MacAskill, as I write these words, safe at home, my dabs long wiped from the knife, shower-time no longer holds the same fear for me. And, even if in due course Mr MacAskill has his way, abolishes corroboration and this article is taken as a confession of my guilt, at worst I reckon I’ll be made subject of a Community Payback Order.

With my gardening experience I must be an excellent candidate for unpaid community work. I can even bring my own equipment. If I can remember what I did with it.

• William McIntyre is a partner in Russel + Aitken and also the author of a series of crime novels


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