Can’t pay won’t pay

First we had child curfew orders and then we had antisocial
behaviour orders for miscreant teenagers. And now we have instant
fines for children.

On-the-spot fines of up to £80 are the latest government
wheeze for tackling yobbish behaviour in 10 to 17 year olds. The
Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 which came into force at the end of
January contains powers for the police and newly created community
support officers to issue fixed penalty notices to under 18s. The
kinds of minor offences covered by the fines include making hoax
calls to the fire brigade, being drunk in a public place or
behaving in a way “likely to cause harassment, alarm or
distress”.

The idea behind the fines is that the police will be able deal
quickly and effectively with antisocial behaviour without the need
for young people to go to court, or get a criminal record. It is
generally acknowledged that police officers spend too much time
dealing with paperwork and that delays in the criminal justice
system reduce the effectiveness of punishment through the
courts.

Unjust punishment

But child welfare organisations and civil liberties campaigners are
deeply worried. They believe there is potential for large numbers
of young people to be punished for trivial and even arbitrary
offences. They fear that the new fines could prove even more
divisive than “stop and search” powers which are widely seen as
contributing to lack of trust between the police and young people
from some ethnic minorities.

Most worrying is the extremely subjective nature of the offence of
“behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”. One
person’s interpretation of alarming behaviour might amount to no
more than a group of young people chatting on a street corner after
dark.

Sharon Moore, principal policy officer for the Children’s Society
says: “There are bound to be different interpretations between
police forces and individual officers in how the fixed penalty
notices are used. There’s a danger that people will see them as
being used inappropriately to target certain parts of the community
or groups of young people.”

The Home Office expects police forces to be ready to introduce the
fines by Easter. Initially, the penalties will apply only to young
people aged 16 and over. However, the prime minister said in a
recent House of Commons debate that he wants to introduce fines for
10 to 15 year olds “as soon as possible” because “much antisocial
behaviour… is caused by youngsters under the age of 16″.

The Home Office minister Baroness Scotland told the House of Lords
in February that the government plans “to pilot [penalty notices]
in some areas for 10 to 15 year olds, taking account of early
experience with 16 to 17 year olds… We intend to have a full
evaluation of how the fixed-penalty notices will apply to 16 to 18
year olds so that we can learn the lessons in relation to
them.”

Judging by the experience of on-the-spot fines for adults
introduced in 2002, the new powers are likely to prove attractive
to police forces keen to avoid the bureaucracy involved in taking
cases to court. About 2,000 fines were issued to over-18s in four
pilot areas in the first seven months of the scheme, but the
government is yet to publish a full evaluation.

Lionel Skingley, senior policy and information officer at the crime
prevention charity Nacro, describes the fixed penalty notices as “a
blunt instrument”. Unlike the courts, police and community support
officers issuing notices will take no account of a young person’s
family circumstances, what may lie behind their behaviour or their
ability to pay the fine.

Ministers have said that they want to avoid criminalising young
people and being issued with a fine will not mean they
automatically get a criminal record. But in practice young people
may get a criminal record if they fail to pay the fine. Skingley
points out that they could even end up in custody, as has happened
to some young people who have failed to comply with the terms of
their antisocial behaviour orders (Asbo) imposed by the
courts.

Moore is also worried about the lack of safeguards for young people
being fined on the streets. When children are questioned at a
police station, a parent or other responsible adult has to be
present. “There are huge implications in giving on-the-spot fines
to children and teenagers without an adult there to explain what is
going on,” she says. “Will a 10 year old even understand what is
happening?”

Despite falling youth crime statistics, the perception is that
antisocial behaviour is getting worse. A recent poll carried out
for the Home Office underlines the lack of confidence that the
public has in the criminal justice system to deal with teenage
offending behaviour, with less than a quarter of respondents saying
they felt “very” or “fairly” confident. Some Labour MPs say they
are deluged with complaints from constituents about antisocial
behaviour and are pressing ministers to bring in the powers as soon
as possible.

Children’s welfare organisations are angry that the government is
reneging on a commitment it made when the Antisocial Behaviour Bill
was going through Parliament to pilot fines for under-18s before
rolling them out nationally. The government denies that different
considerations apply to 16 and 17 years olds compared with adults.
Under the law, 16 and 17 year olds are liable to pay their own
fines. However, many teenagers lack the resources to pay fines of
up to £80.

Responsible parents

In the case of children under the age of 16, parents will be
responsible for paying fixed penalty notices. Parents will then
face getting a criminal record and even imprisonment if they don’t
pay.

Moore believes that many families and young people are likely to
default on the fines, drawing them into the criminal justice
system. She says: “We are concerned that the government is
ploughing ahead with this without proper evaluation. The purpose of
the fixed penalties is to free up the system and reduce bureaucracy
but we think the reverse will happen and thousands of young people
and families will end up being dragged through the courts.”

Pam Hibbert, policy officer at Barnardo’s, is concerned that fines
risk damaging already fragile relationships in families under
stress. She says: “For middle class families £70 or £80
may not be a great deal of money. But these are likely to be
children from the poorest families. Both children and families
could be criminalised. This could prove the last straw for some
families and is likely to have an impact on things like
homelessness.”

Hibbert also wonders what will happen for young people in care.
“Who will be responsible for paying their fines?” she asks. “We
know that many young people in care don’t have good relationships
with their carers. Isn’t this just going to put extra strain on
relationships?”

Moore adds: “The bottom line is that the government wants to appear
tough. But in reality these fines may make things worse for the
police and the authorities as well as for young people.”

Offences by under 18s covered by on-the-spot
fines

  • Being drunk in a bar or pub or in a street or other public
    place.
  • Throwing fireworks in the street.
  • Making a hoax call to the fire brigade.
  • Trespassing on the railway.
  • Throwing stones and other objects at trains.
  • Buying or attempting to buy alcohol for consumption in a bar in
    a licensed premises.
  • Behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
  • Graffiti and fly-posting.

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