A range of regulatory and non-regulatory options have been examined and a preferred approach proposed as described below.
Maintaining the status quo of relying on the offence provisions in the Summary Offences Act 1981 and the Crimes Act 1961 will not, on their own, reduce the carrying of knives, and other weapons, by young people and their use in the commission of offences.
Knife crime has received much attention in the United Kingdom following a series of high profile crimes involving knives in 2007. In response, the United Kingdom government has implemented a range of initiatives ranging from legislative change through to national advertising campaigns. The New Zealand Government wishes to target this problem now to prevent it from escalating here.
The government has indicated that it wishes to send a clear message that carrying knives and other weapons is unacceptable and that there will be consequence for such behaviour. Increasing the Crimes Act 1961 penalty for possession of an offensive weapon will serve to denounce this type of offending and may have a small deterrent effect. Other regulatory approaches are either not feasible or the scale of the problem does not justify them. Overseas experience seems to indicate that a ban on sales is not particularly effective.
As an alternative a voluntary accord with retailers is proposed along with educative initiatives (in schools and through Fresh Start) targeted to young people to improve their understanding of the dangers of carrying knives and to monitor those who have been convicted of offences involving knives.
The preferred package would include:
- Increasing the penalty in the Crimes Act 1961 for possession of an offensive weapon
- Voluntary accord with retailers to limit the sale of knives to young people
- Using Fresh Start programmes to prevent knife offending and re-offending
- Education in schools provided by Police
Increase the penalty in the Crimes Act 1961 for possession of an offensive weapon
Rather than making carrying of knives illegal, the preferred option is to increase the current penalty under the Crimes Act 1961 for possession of an offensive weapon. Although only approximately 20% of these offences involve knives an increase in the penalty level would denounce the carrying of weapons and hold the offender more accountable for their actions.
The Crimes Act 1961 offence (section 202A) targets the most serious offending. The Government intends to send a clear message that carrying of any weapon is unacceptable. An increase in the penalty would go towards achieving this aim. This option would extend beyond knife crime, as this offence also applies to carrying other offensive weapons.
The United Kingdom has increased the maximum sentence for possession of a bladed weapon from 2 years to 4 years. However, the UK legislation does not have the sentencing direction to the Court that is in Section 202BA of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961.
The penalty increase from 2 years to 3 years imprisonment could be considered as this would then align this penalty with the burglary tools possession offence , the main analogous offence in the Crimes Act 1961. Although this would bring these two similar offences in line, the Crimes Act 1961 weapon possession offence already has a harsher element attached to it, given that imprisonment is mandatory upon second conviction for such possession.
The increase in the maximum penalty for possession of an offensive weapon is likely to lead to an increase in the prison population. The Ministry of Justice and the Department of Corrections estimate that there will be an increase in average prison sentence length and that a small number of offenders who currently receive Home Detention or community-based sentences will be imprisoned. As a result an additional 15–20 additional prison beds are likely to be needed following the implementation of the law change. Corrections also estimate that around 100 offenders per year who would have received monetary penalties are likely to receive community-based sentences as a result of the change.
Prison beds are provided to meet capacity levels established on the basis of forecasts of the prisoner population, produced annually. Funding arrangements reflect capacity requirements, thus capital funding is provided for the construction of complete units of prisoner accommodation, not on a per prisoner basis. The expected increase in prisoner numbers will therefore affect forecasts and consequently capacity development, having a net effect of bringing forward the forecast rate of growth in prisoner numbers. Illustratively, the marginal capital cost of the required beds is $6m - $8M, with an annual operating cost of $1.4m - $1.8m starting from 2010 - 2011.
The costs associated with increased numbers of community-based sentences and Home Detention orders will depend on the actual mix of sentences and orders imposed. The average cost of a sentence or order ranges from about $2,800 for community work to $19,000 for Home Detention.
The full impacts will be considered as part of the costing of changes to Part 8 of the Crimes Act (to be introduced by the Crimes (Offences Against the Person) Amendment Bill) and will be provided as part of Budget 2011 - 2012.
Voluntary accord with retailers to limit the sale of knives to young people
The development of a voluntary accord, involving retailers, local authorities and Police, is an option available to restrict the sale of knives to young people. This would extend retailers current right to refuse to sell should they have concerns about the use of the knife.
An accord would provide guidance to retailers on good practise for the sale of knives and could cover the whole country or be used in those areas where Police intelligence indicates there is a knife problem. An accord could cover matters such as the safe storage and display of knives in shops, signs about the dangers of carrying knives and information sharing between retailers and the Police about knife sales to young people.
Work would be required with retailers and Police to develop an appropriate approach as there would be costs associated with the restrictions for retailers and on Police for enforcing a legislative ban, if one was to be introduced. The approach of working with retailers and Police was adopted in developing the anti-graffiti provisions.
The Safer Southwark Partnership knife charter launched in 2006 as a voluntary agreement between the Council and retailers set out stricter requirements around knife sales . The Council, between April 2008 and March 2009, completed 100 test purchases and over 90% of retailers refused to sell knives to underage buyers  .
In February 2009 the UK Government announced a national campaign with retailers to reduce underage sales of knives. Many major retailers have signed up to an accord around the sale of knives, designed to improve the effectiveness of their ban on knife sales to under 18 year olds.
Using Fresh Start programmes to prevent knife offending and re-offending
The Government has recently introduced new measures to deal with youth offending. Fresh Start legislation and programmes target the 1000 most serious young offenders under 18 years. Some of this group is likely to be carrying knives and involved in knife crimes. The Children, Young Persons, and Their Families (Youth Courts Jurisdiction and Orders) Amendment Act 2010 will give the Youth Court new tools to address these types of offences and reduce re-offending – longer and more intensive supervision orders, parenting, mentoring and drug and alcohol programme orders and judicial monitoring of orders.
The Ministry of Social Development’s Child, Youth and Family Service is able to work with Fresh Start providers to ensure that the Fresh Start programmes address the dangers of carrying knives, and teach young people alternative ways of dealing with conflict. They can also ensure that where a young person has committed an offence involving a knife that the conditions of any Family Group Conference plan or court order are closely monitored. Where conditions are breached the young person can be brought back before the court. Any additional costs associated with incorporating knife crime education into Fresh Start programmes will be absorbed within existing baseline funding.
Fresh Start funding is also being used to increase community youth development programmes targeted to young people who commit low level offences or are at risk of offending. Many of these programmes will include mentoring, an approach that has been shown to be promising in reducing weapon related violence  . This will however, not guarantee that a change in behaviour will occur.
Education in schools provided by Police
The Police already work closely with schools to reduce crime and improve community safety. As a part of their role, Police could provide information to young people about the dangers of carrying knives. Where they have information indicating that there is a particular problem in a school involving knives, or other weapons, the Police could work closely with the school to develop a plan to address the problem. This may involve, for example, specific programmes around weapons, increased Police presence on the school grounds and/or policing places where young people meet after school. This may reduce the risk of serious violence occurring in these areas and provide reassurance to young people and the wider community. Any costs associated with incorporating knife crime education into the education provided by Police will be absorbed within existing baseline funding.
The Police’s work with schools complements the work the Ministry of Education’s Special Education Service does with schools to address student behaviour problems and manage emergencies and traumatic incidents.
Police presence in schools may also have other positive effects other than educating young people on the dangers of knives. Police presences may reduce other problems occurring within schools, bullying, graffiti and truancy. It may also be a useful mechanism for gaining intelligence about conflicts that have the potential to spill over outside of the school grounds.
Considered and Discounted Options
Make carrying knives illegal
An option could be to make the carrying of knives illegal which would go some way towards reducing the carrying of knives and increase public perceptions of safety. This option is over and above the current status quo, where people can have a reasonable excuse for carrying a knife. This option would remove the ‘reasonable excuse’ proviso and effectively criminalise those who have a genuine purpose for carrying a knife. This option fails to recognise that knives are a common item found in workplaces and the home and that people often have a legitimate reason for carrying a knife.
It is also useful to consider that knife possession does not itself cause harm to any other person, but has the potential to cause harm if the objects are misused.
This option will ultimately not eliminate people carrying knives; it could instead result in displacement where some individuals may resort to carrying an alternative weapon if carrying knives were made illegal.
Stop and Search Powers
The use of stop and search powers could be increased similar to changes that have been implemented in Victoria, Australia . Police have been given the power to declare a designated search area and would then be able to stop and search people without a warrant. The Police would publish a notice of intention to search in various papers a specified time out from the operation and then on the day, they do not require good cause to suspect or believe someone is carrying an offensive weapon, they have the automatic power to search.
An increase in weapon searches without warning may have the ability to take a lot of knives out of circulation through detection and deterrence. However, such a measure may be too intrusive and will impede on peoples rights. This power would unfairly target some members of a community and there is currently no evidence to suggest that such a power will achieve a reduction in knife crime.
The New Zealand Police already target areas where their intelligence indicates there are high crime levels or problems with particular crimes and have indicated that the current search powers are adequate.
Age restrictions on the sale of knives
Knives are a commonly available object; one measure would be to decrease the supply to young people by introducing an age restriction on the sale of knives. The UK legislation makes it illegal to sell knives to those under 18 years, which was raised from 16 years in 2006  . New South Wales also prohibits that sale of knives to under 16 year olds and South Australia recently released a discussion paper on knife laws which includes the option of a sales ban for young people.
This measure would not prevent young people from acquiring knives from other sources (within the home and workplaces). The Metropolitan Police in the UK have found that the most common knife used in knife crimes is a domestic knife, which if found on a person in a public place falls within existing legislation .
While there is value in exploring ways to decrease the supply of knives, particularly as a solution for those who carry knives with the intention to use them, this is unlikely to reduce violent offending significantly - those intent on committing violence will find other means to do so.
Introducing a legislative prohibition on knife sales to young people would be a new development in New Zealand, but not unprecedented. The recent enactment of legislation around the sale of graffiti implements under the STOP strategy is one example of restricting the sale of materials likely to be used for criminal purposes. However, unlike spray-paint there is a wide variety of knives which are used for legitimate purposes even by young people
In the UK the restriction seems to have had little or no impact on public safety and a survey carried out by 11 MILLION found that those who are under 18 but appear older are rarely challenged if they attempted to buy a knife in a shop .
The scale of the knife crime problem in New Zealand currently would make it difficult to justify a ban on the sale of knives to young people.
Section 233 Crimes Act 1961
This included asking prospective purchasers who look under 21 for proof of age, displaying knives in secure cabinets and staff training.
House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (June 2009) Knife Crime: Seventh Report of Session 2008-09.
One recent US study concludes that “policies that emphasize the development of mentoring relationships, especially in areas with a high incidence of weapon-related violence, could be quite beneficial to youth.” Melissa Fleschler Peskin, Susan R. Tortolero, Robert C. Addy and Nancy F. Weller Weapon Carrying Prevention: Should Adults Spend More Time With Youth. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 2009.
Victoria, Australia. The Summary Offences and Control of Weapons Acts Amendment Bill 2009. - Control of Weapons Act 1990
Section 141A United Kingdom Criminal Justice Act 1988
House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (June 2009). Knife Crime: Seventh Report of Session 2008-09
11 Million (2009). Young people, and gun and knife crime – a review of the evidence (www.11MILLION.org.uk)