Listen to those on the front line of knife crisis

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Home invasions in the middle of the night. “Swarm” attacks on the streets in daylight. Individuals targeted after social media feuds between suburban gangs of youths. Recently, each of these alarming scenarios has had a new and too often fatal added ingredient: the use of knives.

This week The Age has put the spotlight on a surge in knife violence that has rocked communities, prompted special police operations and created a new strain on our already stretched hospital system.

Illustration: Aresna Villanueva Credit:

For victims and witnesses, these assaults are dangerous and terrifying experiences. They also frequently take place in highly visible public spaces. At one suburban shopping centre, a tip-off to police prompted a sweep revealing kitchen knives and machetes hidden in bushes and cars so that gang members had ready access.

The challenge knife violence presents is a serious one, but its current severity is comparatively new. For it to be effectively tackled, we must avoid alarmism and listen to those dealing with the problem on the ground.

In the lead-up to the 2018 state election, Victorians saw that attempts to cast the problem in racial terms and calls for more punitive sentencing came and went with the winds of political expedience. Those working in law enforcement and other agencies were left to pick up the pieces once the debate left the headlines.

What they say is that, beyond a hard core of offenders, many of the young people aged between 14 and 22 who get caught up in gangs are disengaged from education and employment and lack a stable family life. Far from being career criminals, many are at the fringes and grow out of gang activities in time.

Rather than increased incarceration followed by re-offending, they need to be offered ways to return to the classroom, the home and the workforce, an approach that has yielded measurable results in the Netherlands and Scotland.

Victoria Police’s strict monitoring of known gang members as part of Operation Alliance and patrols with youth workers as part of the Embedded Youth Outreach Program have shown promise in breaking the cycle of offending. Grassroots community efforts such as South Sudanese Australian Youth United, Charis Youth and Community and Afri-Aus Care are also crucial.

It is vital that once young people enter the court system, we avoid it becoming a revolving door. This means it must be a widespread condition of bail that they undertake programs aimed at changing their behaviour and reintegrating them.

It is to such programs that our government must commit greater resources. Building this capacity will require spending, but not as much as we are already committed to in building and staffing prisons – some of them empty.

The Age’s interviews with members of Melbourne’s African communities show it’s also about improving support for households where there may only be one parent, or where two parents are working. The alternative, as youth worker Monica Deng points out, is that we all miss out on what youth from these communities can contribute to the wider society.

The cases described in the investigation show that once knives are introduced, even young people who are only loosely part of gangs can suddenly find themselves facing life-and-death consequences. Assistant Commissioner Brett Curran told The Age: “They all get engaged and all of a sudden, somebody’s stabbed.”

When we spoke to a leading trauma surgeon about knife violence, she told us how a wound of only a few millimetres across could hide terrible damage beneath the skin. It only takes a single person’s misjudgment with a blade to tear apart communities, destroy families and end lives. By that time, whatever measures we take will be too late.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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