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Serious violence in context
Crest Advisory report on understanding the scale and nature of serious violence.

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Earlier this week, Crest Advisory published the first report from a two-year programme of research to explore the underlying drivers of serious violence and test the potential for the implementation of more problem-oriented, preventative approaches. 

The report takes as it starting point an investigation into four key factors linked to serious violence:

  1. Changing drug markets: particularly the increasing supply of cocaine, which is driving up demand and fuelling violence
  2. The vulnerability of victims and offenders: children ‘at risk’ of falling into violence – including children in care and children excluded from school as well as vulnerable adults
  3. A decline in effective enforcement: a weakening of police intelligence and a reduction in the proportion of offenders charged
  4. Opportunity presented by social media: which can rapidly escalate petty conflicts / spread the contagion of violence.

The report presents findings on a number of key themes:

  • What are the key trends and patterns?
  • How many people are at risk of violence and who are they?
  • What do we know about the drivers and how they interact?
  • How are safeguarding and criminal justice services responding?

Key trends

  • Rising homicide in England and Wales forms part of an increase in homicide across Europe. Homicides enabled by knives in England and Wales are at the highest level since records began
  • However, the headline rises in homicide, robbery and knife crime are the tip of the iceberg. Crest’s analysis shows that the presenting problem of serious violence is part of a wider picture of criminality, including assaults with intent to cause harm, exploitation offences, sexual violence and drug dealing, which all sit underneath. All of these offences have been rising significantly since 2014
  • The UK is a European outlier on robbery, and is the only country to face significant rises over the past five years. Robbery with knives has risen by 45 per cent between March 2014 and March 2018 in England and Wales.

People at risk

  • Previous research to estimate the numbers of young people at risk has looked at the number in gangs and the number who carry a knife. New research for this report shows that those at risk of serious violence are likely to include a larger group of children. Our new estimates reveals a pipeline of children (10-17s) who are at risk of being caught up in violence: around 45,000 were victims of serious violence in 2018 whilst up to 269,000 may have been drawn into serious violence
  • There is a real blurring of the lines between victim and offender: children should be recognised as victims of violence and criminal exploitation, but this same exploitation makes them perpetrators of crime. This is a huge challenge for safeguarding, policing and criminal justice services where there are legal, policy and practical distinctions between victims and offender
  • Violence tends to concentrate in very small areas – the socio-demographic factors in those areas therefore become key indicators
A range of single-cause explanations have been offered for rising violence in recent years, overlapping across five broad domains

Drivers and their interaction

  • The key drugs driving street violence are crack cocaine and heroin through open drug markets and county lines. County lines has been driven by market saturation in urban centres.
  • Policing appears to have had less focus on drugs in recent years and is now less sighted on drugs markets in general and the middle market in particular.
  • Experience of domestic violence, exclusion from school, or being looked after have well-evidenced links to vulnerability. In turn, the systematic targeting and grooming of vulnerable children and adults in the supply and distribution of drugs increases their risks of being drawn into violence.
  • Technology including social media is making it easier for organised crime groups and gangs to market drugs, recruit and control vulnerable people and compete for status at street level.

The response

Policing, safeguarding and criminal justice services are struggling to respond:

  • The absence of deterrence: neighbourhood policing has been eroded and arrest and charge rates have collapsed. In the year ending March 2019, only 7.8 per cent of offences led to charge
  • The systematic exploitation of children and young people to commit crimes presents a significant challenge for policing and safeguarding services, predicated as they are on a clear victim/perpetrator distinction
  • The prison system is struggling with unprecedented levels of violence, an environment which is not conducive to rehabilitation. Violence in prison is known to be driven by drugs use and drug dealing, extending the cycle of violence.


Crest Advisory argues that agencies charged with tackling this phenomenon will struggle to deal with one component without recognising other interrelated components. The need to develop a public health approach to serious violence necessitates a multi-faceted view of the problem and an appreciation of the gaps in knowledge.

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