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Monday, January 21, 2019

Grasping the nettle: sentencing for knife crime

I had given up hope of finding this - prompted by a reference in a reader's letter to The Spectator some years ago, I think - but Billy Connolly mentions Lord Carmont's action in his new autobiography.

Cruel to be kind? Needed again, now?

Note that Carmont gave fair warning before he started.

The judge who stopped knife crime

Lord Carmont rocked the underworld of Glasgow in the Fifties when he began handing out long sentences for knife crime. Judges should follow his example now, says ADAM EDWARDS

RUTHLESS: Carmont imposed lengthy sentences on those who used blades

ONE terrible fact leapt out of the crime figures published by the Government last week: a knife attack takes place in Britain once every four minutes on average. There were 129,840 violent attacks involving a knife last year – more than 350 a day. The stark numbers bring shock and surprise – surprise that the Government has little idea what to do about them.

But a dip into fairly recent British history suggests the solution to the knife-crime epidemic is obvious.

Back in the Fifties, Glasgow was in the grip of razor gangs when Lord John Carmont, one of its leading judges, decided to do something about it.

The hawk-faced adjudicator, who died more than 40 years ago, was ruthless in his determination to rid the city of its stabbers and slashers. His answer to the wave of knifings was simply to give long jail terms to anyone caught carrying an open “cut-throat” razor.

His tough stance became known as “copping a Carmont”. From 1952, he became so notorious for punitive sentences that even today the French language still contains the phrase “faire un carmont”. The message quickly reached the gangs and carrying razors fell out of fashion. He “rocked the underworld of Glasgow”, wrote a contemporary, and stopped knife crime in its tracks.

“When I was a teenager in Glasgow, I remember the sporadic terror wreaked in the city centre’s dance halls by gangs intent on recreational violence,” says Charlie Gordon, Labour member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow Cathcart. “It took exemplary sentences issued by Lord Carmont to stop a razor-slashing culture that was growing in the city.”

Born in 1880 to a distinguished Catholic family, John Carmont was educated both in France and at the beautiful Abbey School in Fort Augustus in the Scottish Highlands. Called to the bar in 1906, he saw active service during the First World War both in the ranks and as an officer in the Black Watch.

He took silk in 1924 and established himself as one of the most formidable characters in the Scottish judiciary. He had an unusually retentive memory, could quote verbatim from legal texts and was admired for his sturdy independence of mind.

Though his sentences were harsh, he was personally “the gentlest and kindliest of men”, notes his 1965 obituary, adding that his sentences were “the logical outcome of his sense of priorities which demanded that the public was entitled to protection from the anti-social activities of the lawless”. Would that all judges had such views now.

With the constituency of Glasgow East voting in a by-election today, it is significant that the retiring MP, Labour’s David Marshall, has also spoken of the impact of Carmont’s crackdown.

In a speech on law and order, he told the Commons: “I feel sorry for the police. I give them my full support and they do splendid work but much of what they do is to some extent negated by the courts, which let down the law-abiding citizens of this country and its police force. If the courts were to make an example of some criminals, particularly those who commit acts of violence, crime would rapidly decrease.

“I cite an example from 40 or 50 years ago. Lord Carmont sentenced a few razor-slashers in Glasgow to 20 years’ imprisonment at a time when 20 years meant precisely that. Overnight, razor-slashing ceased.”

In fact, a standard Carmont sentence was one decade behind bars rather than two but Mr Marshall was on the right lines.

In the first half of the 20th century, Glasgow had an unenviable reputation for violence. The city took the brunt of the Depression in the Thirties with very high unemployment, substandard housing and poor levels of health.

The worst of the suffering was in the run-down district known as the Gorbals where, according to the writer Colin MacFarlane who was born there: “Human waste ran down the tenement stairs and filth, violence, crime, rats, poverty and drunkenness abounded.” A novel No Mean City by Alexander McArthur was published in 1935 about slum life in the Gorbals. Its anti-hero was “razor king” Johnnie Stark. The book was so grim that many libraries refused to stock it.

Glasgow and knives were inextricably linked in the public’s mind. The nickname for a slashing, for example, was known in some quarters as “a Glasgow smile”.

“By the early Fifties every gangster carried an open razor,” according to Danny Grant, a former policeman whose beat included Glasgow’s toughest districts.

When Lord Carmont, by then a senior high court judge, saw how many of Glasgow’s criminals were being sent to his court for knife crimes, he knew that the city was in the grip of a violent crime epidemic which had to be stopped.

“Carmont stated that in future anyone appearing in front of him who had been found in possession of an open razor would be sent to prison for 10 years,” says Grant. Back then, a 10-year sentence meant 10 years behind bars.

Carmont’s reputation for being tough was already well known to Glasgow criminals, as his treatment of John Ramensky attests.

Ramensky was the best-known safe blower in Scottish history, as famous for his prison breaks as for his crimes. During the Second World War, he was recruited by the military to blow up enemy buildings and steal important documents. He won the Military Medal and had been given a free pardon.

Shortly after the war, at the age of 50, Ramensky appeared before Carmont after being caught blowing a safe. He made an impassioned plea for clemency and cited his war record. He pleaded with Carmont that he had undergone more than his share of suffering. “Give me a chance, as only good can result from it,” he said in mitigation. But Carmont sentenced him to 10 years with the cold remark that “any sentence of less than 10 years would be useless”.

AS SOON as Carmont had decided to solve the blade problem, he was merciless. In one court sitting he passed sentences of up to 10 years on eight men – 52 years in all – simply for carrying razors and knives.

Those sentences had an immediate effect. For a brief period in Glasgow’s history, razors and knives vanished from its streets.

Today the plea for tougher sentences for knife crime echoes across the country.

In 2006, Charlie Gordon moved an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act going through the Scottish Parliament calling for mandatory jail sentences for possessing knives. His amendment failed.

But now he has renewed his call for automatic jail sentences for knife possession. “This is an idea whose time has come,” he said.

It is time for all MPs and judges to take note of the views of the public. It is time a new generation of violent hooligans got to know the meaning of “copping a Carmont”.

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