Fewer knife offenders in Bedfordshire were jailed last year, figures reveal.
Campaigners say knife crime laws are being applied in a "weak and ineffective way" as Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show fewer criminals are going to jail for knife and weapons offences across England and Wales.
In the year to September 2021, the criminal justice system handed down 178 punishments for knife crime in Bedfordshire, 61 (34 per cent) of which were immediate jail sentences.
That was a lower proportion than the year before, when 37 per cent of knife offenders were sent to prison, while in 2019 – prior to the coronavirus pandemic – the figure stood at 37 per cent.
Nationally, just 28 per cent of criminals received a jail sentence after being convicted over knife crime last year, down significantly from 36 per cent in the year to September 2020.
And despite the introduction in 2015 of 'second strike' sentences of at least six months for repeat offenders, more than 5,000 had a history of similar offending.
Just over half of them were put behind bars compared to 63 per cent the year before.
In Bedfordshire, there were 54 people cautioned or convicted who had previous convictions, including 11 with two convictions and four with three or more.
Of them, 30 were sent straight to prison, meaning 24 repeat knife offenders received non-custodial sentences or cautions.
Patrick Green, CEO of anti-knife crime charity the Ben Kinsella Trust, said knife crime victims were being failed by the criminal justice system.
He said: "These figures show that the justice system allowed thousands of habitual knife carriers to avoid prison and walk out of court.
"The prospect of an offender being imprisoned for a knife crime offence is diminishing and the law is no longer providing a deterrent to serial knife carriers."
Across England and Wales, 20,200 knife and offensive weapons offences ended with a conviction or caution in the year to September 2021, a rise of 10 per cent% on the previous year and the equivalent of 38 for every 100,000 people.
The rate in Bedfordshire was 33 per 100,000, down from 39 in 2019, before the pandemic brought disruption to courts and communities.
A spokesman for the MoJ said those caught carrying a knife are more likely to be sent to jail – and for longer – than they were a decade ago.
He added that the recruitment of 20,000 extra police officers coupled with sentencing reforms would bring more criminals before the courts and ensure offenders spend longer behind bars.
A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs' Council said tackling knife crime is a policing priority.
He said: "Proactive policing, speaking to local communities, weapons sweeps and effective targeting of habitual knife carriers have played a role in the number of offensive weapon offences that are prosecuted.
"Every weapon removed from the streets is possibly a life saved."