On a street in northwest London, in January, shortly before midnight, Donnel Carty spotted a man walking home from the Tube station. The man was a solicitor, Tom ap Rhys Pryce, but Carty and his friend Delano Brown didn’t care who he was. He could have been anyone. Carty whistled to Brown and nodded in Mr ap Rhys Pryce’s direction, then set off at pace and vaulted in the air to kick the 31-year-old lawyer in the back.
Then the knives came out. It remains unclear whether Carty or Brown wounded Mr ap Rhys Pryce, but certainly one of them did: he was stabbed through the heart and lung, and also in the leg – a wound used by knife gangs as a mark of humiliation.
Mr ap Rhys-Pryce died only yards from the home in Kensal Green he shared with his fiancée, Adele Eastman. Among the papers scattered around him were plans for their forthcoming wedding.
Street robberies jumped eight percent in England and Wales last year, with London accounting for half the rise. Rudy Neofytou, 19, was knifed trying to stop shoplifters. Tom Grant, 19, was stabbed to death on a train. Nisha Patel-Nasri, 29, a Special Constable, was killed on duty. Kiyan Prince, 15, a promising footballer, collapsed and died 50 yards from his school gates in north London after he was stabbed. And just an hour after that another boy was seriously wounded in a knife attack in nearby Hendon.
These crimes are so common they rarely make the news. But they’re happening all the time, and not only in big cities. Only last week, a schoolboy in Wokingham was convicted of stabbing a classmate in the back.
This week the killers of Mr ap Rhys Pryce were imprisoned – Carty, 19, received a life sentence with a minimum of 21 years in jail while Brown, 18, was given a minimum of 17 years. At the same time the jail population rose above 80,000, moving the former prison chief Lord Ramsbotham to describe the government’s management of criminal justice as a “headlong and self-induced race to absurdity”.
The former Conservative parliamentary candidate for Brent East, Kwasi Kwarteng, who knew Mr ap Rhys Pryce at Cambridge, says: “During the last election, there was a feeling that the situation had got out of hand. People felt helpless. What we do know is that a decade after the phrase ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ was coined, we are still no nearer to solving the causes of such violent crimes as this.”
Meanwhile, the wider problem of our criminal and disaffected underclass becomes ever greater. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) recently published research showing that British teenagers are the worst behaved in Europe – top of the list, or not far behind, on indicators for drug abuse, drunkenness, promiscuity, early sex and teenage motherhood.
All mainstream political parties identify this as one of the greatest problems facing society. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader who now runs the Social Justice Policy Group, recently told me: “For all the money we have in the UK, there are people living terrible lives. Large sections of society are breaking down. This affects us all. I don’t think a productive society can carry on with a growing underclass.”
Should we despair? Not necessarily. New trends in tackling crime and disorderly behaviour give some hope – but they pose a considerable challenge. Because if you don’t want to keep reading about violent crimes like the murder of Tom ap Rhys Pryce, far less be a victim yourself, you may need to stop complaining about the failures of the government and statutory authorities – and go out into the community as part of the solution.
The IPPR report suggested as a cause the collapse in family and community life. Teenagers on the Continent spend significantly more time at home than British children, it noted, talking to parents and eating family meals. British children are more likely to hang out with friends most evenings. About a third of British parents don’t have, or make, time for their children.
Shaun Bailey, a community worker in north Kensington, confirms this. “Many young people I deal with have never spent any meaningful time with their mothers or their fathers. They have no family rules that govern them. And the failure of the schools to impart the most basic of social skills is astonishing. The teenagers here cannot speak to people they don’t know as they only know how to speak their own slang.”
Camila Batmanghelidjh, who oversees several thousand troubled children in south London, through her charity Kids Company, broadly agrees. Earlier intervention is needed to steer children away from criminal lives. “I have kids now who could be killers in the future and I can’t get the help from the local authority. They don’t have the resources.”
At the trial, Mr ap Rhys Pryce’s fiancee asked, in a bitterly moving statement read out to the court, “What happened along the way for (Carty and Brown) to become so cruel and hateful towards others, and at such a young age?”
Born in north-west London, the pair first met as boys through their families’ church activities and came to think of each other as brothers. Both lacked positive male role models. Brown showed promise, leaving school with a string of GCSEs, then qualifying to teach sport to children. But like Carty he was thrown out of college and drifted into lawlessness.
Not a promising start – but not enough to make them murderers. So what could have kept them from that dismal outcome?
One thing Batmanghelidjh stresses is the value of mentors. Kids Company has vetted and trained some 200 adults to act as mentors to individual children. “They’re City people and professionals. They meet maybe once a week, and they communicate by phone. Maybe find a club the kid can go to, play football with them, talk to them about their family. We are always looking for more mentors. We don’t care about their profession, or their age.”
One of the biggest mentoring programmes in the world, Big Brothers Big Sisters, was founded in the US more than 100 years ago. It pairs troubled children with adults who can offer guidance and friendship. Retired marketing director David Hall imported the idea to Britain in the 1990s.
An American study compared the outcomes of 1,000 children – half of them had mentors and the other half were on a waiting list. “The findings were simply outstanding.”
Children with mentors were 52% less likely to miss school, 46% less likely to start using drugs, 27% less likely to start using alcohol, 33% less likely to hit someone, 37% less likely to lie to their parents. A Canadian study found that young people with a mentor had an 82% graduation rate compared with a 42% average for lone parent family children and a 67% average for children from two parent families.
“That research really knocked me out,” says Hall. How does he account for the results? “If you are a 10 year old and you find it exciting to do burglaries and other crime, and your mother’s boyfriend tells you not to, it goes in one ear and out the other. But if that comes from a good bloke who is quite cool and you don’t hate him because he’s not going out with your mum, you might listen.”
What more can concerned citizens do? The family of Mr ap Rhys Pryce is setting up a charity to help divert young people away from street crime and to offer help to disadvantaged youngsters.
But several diversionary schemes already exist. The borough of Brent offers many projects tailored to draw in young men such as Carty and Brown. One, Studio Plus, offers music facilities as a lure, with the promise of subsequent training in computer and employment skills.
Critics say that these courses can actually reinforce the problems. The professional musicians who run them are often too frightened to challenge the children – and allow them to write and perform songs describing ever more sickening fantasies. In court, jurors were visibly shocked to learn about the violent bragging recorded by the defendants.
Indeed, a report this week by the Economic and Social Research Council showed that street robbers often carry out their crimes for the thrill as much as for the financial gain.
Criminologists interviewed 120 convicted violent offenders to find out why muggings appear to be becoming increasingly brutal. “Some robbed in groups or gangs for the buzz and excitement,” said Professor Trevor Bennett, of the University of Glamorgan, who led the study.
Responding to this, Mr ap Rhys Pryce said: “Lots of people do things for a buzz, for kicks, for adrenaline, but it doesn’t have to be violent.” He believes there should strict regulations on carrying of knives. “It is imperative that we stamp out the current knife culture in our cities.”
With the same idea, the England footballer Rio Ferdinand kicked off a Government backed campaign this week. He launched the campaign “Respect the Life Not a Knife” set up by the Damilola Taylor Trust, in memory of the boy’s fatal stabbing in 2000.
But again critics argue that these initiatives are essentially cosmetic. “Knife amnesties will have a negligible impact,” says Chris Eades of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. “Knives will be available as long as there is unsliced bread. If the goal of criminal justice policy is to reduce the number of victims and the harm they suffer, we should look at the root causes – the inclination or desire to resort to violence.”
Jonathan Bartley, director of the Christian think-tank, Ekklesia, highlights the value of mentors to provide positive role models, but also emphasizes the trend for communities to deal with people before they’re “placed on the conveyor of bad behaviour.” Patterns of conduct can be identified early in a child’s life, he says. “And we can intervene before it’s too late.”
One person working towards community solutions is Stephen Ruttle QC, a barrister who deals with commercial cases worth many millions of pounds. “I have had 25 years of hammering people in the witness box,” says Ruttle. “I’m a Christian and I thought, this can’t be the right way to resolve things.
Ruttle’s wife suggested he should go on a mediation course (“something that litigators regard as a bit like quiche,” he says, “soft and squidgy and unappealing”). But he did as she suggested. “I was blown away. In 80 to 85 per cent of cases that go to mediation settle by agreement. That’s an amazing difference.” Professionally, he’s now a full-time mediator. He uses the skills outside work too, in the south-London borough where he lives.
“The criminal justice system imposes a solution from outside. Mediation turns that on its head. You go into someone’s flat on the 16th floor of a tower block and they’re full of pain. These people were posting crap through each other’s doors. You go from one flat to the next, and if they agree, you get them to meet on a neutral venue and you say that you don’t have the solution. And they work it out between them.
“It doesn’t always work. That particular case was incredibly tense for 15 minutes, but then one of the men leaned over the table and – I will never forget this – he said, ‘Would it help if…’ And the response was, ‘Yeah, if you do that, I’ll do this…’ When you sit people down together extraordinary things can happen.”
But is this kind of “restorative justice” suited to serious crimes like murder? “Look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa,” says Bartley. “You had families coming face to face with the killers. And there was a kind of healing. Nothing is going to bring back the dead person, but if you just lock someone in prison the family has no opportunity to search for truth.”
It’s not only Christians who are creating parallel “legal” structures to deal with crimes. Evidence emerged this week that some Muslims have established their own Sharia “courts”. A stabbing case was decided by Somalis sitting in south-east London after the victim’s family told the police it would be settled out of court and the suspects were released on bail. Those who appear before religious courts avoid re-offending so as not to bring shame on their families.
The government, while emphasizing a punitive approach to crime, has also quietly taken up some of these ideas. In 2002, the then Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Woolf, visited Red Hook Community Justice Centre in New York, USA. Impressed by what he saw, he persuaded the government to pilot community justice in the UK. Schemes already running in Liverpool and Salford are currently undergoing evaluation and the results are due in January 2007.
According to the Restorative Justice Consortium, the satisfaction is consistently high for victims and offenders alike, ranging from 73 to 90 per cent. One study showed that “contracts” between victim and offender were completed in 80 to 90 per cent of cases. (Contracts vary enormously, but the Liverpool trial recently saw a 19-year-old woman, ejected from home after she assaulted her father, promise to kerb her drink and drug use if she was taken back. She kept her promise.) And an assessment of 41 separate studies showed that restorative justice reduced re-offending by more than a quarter. “This is not well known,” Bartley says, “because when academics talk about this they’re accused of being liberals.”
Maria Arpa lives in Kensal Green near where Mr ap Rhys Pryce was killed. “I do understand the shock and the horror that this murder has caused,” she says. “What happened is completely unacceptable. But at the same time we have to unpick how someone goes from being a beautiful newborn baby to killing someone. It’s not like these people feel happy after they have done this. It creates a really rotten, miserable world.”
Arpa used to run her own marketing and advertising business. But after volunteering for the Samaritans she went on to get qualifications in counselling and community mediation. Now she trains other mediators.
“People are saying, something has to change,” she says. “We have been using the present system for about 5,000 years, and if it worked the prisons would be empty. I’m not averse to protective force, and removing someone from society. But you have to keep working with these people, and show them love and compassion until they can make a contribution. That may not happen in every case, but the more you criminalise people and make them feel bad about themselves, the less chance there is that they will contribute to society. And that costs us.
“Look at the statistics. In Brent, an Asbo costs £2,500. Community mediation costs £500. And 40 per cent of people who have Asbos go on to break the terms. Of that 40 per cent, nearly half will end up in custody, at a cost of £4,500 a week. And a vast majority of people in custody re-offend.”
On average, a murder costs the Home Office £1.1m, excluding healthcare costs. A high-level mediation dealing with gangs over several months, Arpa says, would cost £10,000 to £20,000.
How would that work? “In a case like this, you would probably not bring the two sides face to face but shuttle between them. One side might say that the other has tricked them, or been selling drugs on their patch, so they’re going to kill someone. So you say, ‘And what happens when they come back and kill you, or your little brother?’ And they haven’t thought about that. Then you go and see the other side and ask them to stay out of the area while you’re negotiating, and you gradually get them to agree certain things in principle.
“You might not get them away from crime altogether, in these cases, but you stop that particular killing and you gradually get the whole family involved, because the mothers don’t want their children to be killed.
“What happens over time is that they trust you, and they understand that you’re not the police, and they actually call you in to mediate. Someone might phone you and say, ‘So-and-so is going to be killed at a certain club on Saturday.’ So you start mediating at once.”
Five years ago, Arpa had trouble interesting the authorities in mediation. “People thought I was mad.” So she got a job across town in Lambeth. Now she’s come back to Brent and found attitudes completely changed. The local gun-crime coordinator has agreed to spend funds from reclaimed assets – the sale of criminals’ ill-gotten gains – on training people to work as mediators on the street.
The first course took place earlier this year. Alongside trainees from statutory agencies were several local residents. “Even people with no reading skills can be mediators,” says Arpa. “In Birmingham, there are two ex-offenders doing mediation on the street. We are about to do the same here. There ain’t no bling-wearing BMW-driving guy going to talk to me. It won’t happen. But I can train the people who have access to these people on the street. What I want to do is sit behind the scenes and provide the support.
One man who took Arpa’s course is Martin Hopwood, whose son Kavian-Francis, 21, was murdered by a gunman in Brent in 2003. “Since then, I have done my best to try to prevent what happened to me happening to anyone else,” he says.
Hopwood, who is black, has for years been volunteering as a mentor to young black people in the borough. Combining that with mediation has produced powerful results. “I have been able to reunite families. For example, there is a young man I have been working with as a mentor, he had not seen his mother for two years and I saw that he would like to see her, so I went to see the mother myself, first and asked if she’d like to see him, and I saw that she would. So I got them together. There was no hug, and no eye contact. That was in July. But in September I saw them give each other a hug. And that helped to build a bridge where before there was a widening gap. I’m doing the same now with a mother who wants to see her daughter.”
Bearing in mind that young men like Carty and Brown had less than perfect home lives, Hopwood is convinced that the work he does can really help. But he remains gravely worried that so many young people lack appropriate male role models. “I recently took a mother to Feltham to visit her son. I looked around and I said, ‘Where are the dads?’ And it’s the same at my daughter’s school. Where are the dads? The sleeping giants, the fathers, need to wake up.”
If they don’t, it seems the projection of moral standards, and the prevention of horrific murders like that of Mr ap Rhys Pryce may fall to the rest of us. It’s a challenge that many will find frankly horrifying: to mediate in neighbourhood disputes, or make friends with the likes of Carty and Brown.