In Manchester an 11-year-old boy is banned for life from wearing
a balaclava and a 19-year-old faces jail if he swears in his own
back garden. In Runcorn a 14-year-old girl has been barred from
every residential home in the country save her own. Elsewhere other
recipients of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) are banned from
riding bicycles, taking the bus, using certain streets or showing
The Asbo is fast becoming the one-size-fits-all solution to
teenage misbehaviour and youth crime. As a civil order it comes
unencumbered by the burden of proof required by the criminal court.
Yet the restrictions it places on its recipient can be so stringent
that a breach is almost inevitable. And breaching an Asbo is a
criminal offence punishable by up to five years in custody.
Although Asbos were not specifically designed as a youth crime
measure, around three-quarters are imposed on people under the age
of 21. Between 35 and 45 per cent are breached, leading to fears
that antisocial behaviour legislation may not only be bypassing the
criminal justice system but also undermining measures to address
the root causes of youth crime. Young recipients of Asbos receive
little of the support and supervision offered to those placed on
specific youth crime interventions such as the youth inclusion
programme or intensive supervision and surveillance programme.
“The Asbo is a very blunt instrument,” says Lionel Skingley,
senior policy and information officer at crime reduction charity
Nacro. “At best it can provide a temporary respite for a community.
But it doesn’t address the causes of the crime. The real way
to decrease crime is by working with communities.”
There is also concern that Asbo breaches are contributing to the
surge in youth custody figures recently announced by the Youth
Justice Board. The number of juveniles held in custody rose by 10
per cent in the first three months of this year, compared with an
expected rise of 5 per cent. Custodial remands rose by 18 per
“I don’t have the figures to show how much of the
astonishing rise in youth custody is due to Asbo breaches,” says
Skingley. “But my feeling is that they must be quite a strong force
behind it. Courts tend to be very protective of their orders. If
you breach them there’s a good chance you’ll receive a
According to Bob Ashford, head of prevention at the Youth
Justice Board, there is no direct evidence to link the rise in
youth custody with Asbo breaches.
“It’s too early to tell what contribution, if any, Asbo
breaches are making to these figures. But it is certainly something
that we are watching closely,” he says.
Ashford stresses that recent measures have been introduced to
ensure that young recipients of Asbos are not left without support.
Since May, any magistrates’ court that imposes an Asbo
against a young person aged between 10 and 17 will also be expected
to impose an individual support order (ISO) designed to help the
causes of their antisocial behaviour. An ISO, for example, could
require a young person to attend counselling for substance misuse
or anger management. At the front line of the fight against youth
crime, however, ISOs are hardly being welcomed with open arms.
“The ISO is fine in principle but we have received no new money
to implement it,” says Jim Hopkinson, head of the youth offending
team in Leeds. “In Leeds we are already working flat out and if the
courts suddenly implemented 100 ISOs we just would not absorb the
Ashford at the YJB acknowledges that “it looks like the numbers
of Asbos and ISOs being implemented are going to be larger than
originally planned” and he stresses that “if YOTs need more
resources to implement ISOs then, believe me, we will be seeking
Hopkinson’s concern is understandable. Leeds City Council
has embraced the Asbo with such enthusiasm that it imposed 66 in a
single day on young people in the Little London area of the city.
The council hailed the move as a great success, pointing to a 30
per cent decrease in burglaries in the area during the first six
months after the Asbos were imposed.
But for members of the YOT, the fallout has been a rising number
of young people facing custodial sentences. Over the past six
months in Leeds, 75 young people have been bailed or remanded in
custody for a total of 2,879 offences. The biggest single
contribution to this figure (13 per cent) was breach of an Asbo.
“That’s a real change,” says Hopkinson. “A year ago it would
have been TWOC [vehicle taken without owner’s consent] or
As the number of Asbo breaches rises, the YOT is left
frantically trying to gather information on young people they may
know very little about. “A lot of the young people who end up in
breach of an Asbo are already known to us and we are already
working with them,” says Hopkinson. “But the potential exists for
some to end up in custody after a breach and for us to know very
little about them.”
For those young people who are known to the YOT, Hopkinson is
increasingly focusing his efforts on trying to reduce the rate at
which Asbos are breached. “We are trying so that when young people
receive an Asbo it will be taken seriously,” he says. “We have also
put in place things like parenting initiatives and diversionary
opportunities that offer positive activities. Hopefully that will
mean we will minimise the number of breaches.”
In the meantime there are concerns that Asbo use is eroding
young people’s human rights, particularly now that reporting
restrictions have been removed on Asbo proceedings, allowing young
recipients to be “named and shamed” by local and national media.
This contravenes both the Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights
Act 1998, claims Anthony Jennings QC, the author of a recent report
commissioned by 13 children’s charities. There is also the
suspicion that the police and councils are using Asbos’ civil
status to avoid the legal procedures required to carry out a
“It is leading to a twin track justice system in which Asbos are
being used to bypass the criminal courts,” says Samantha Sherratt,
a spokesperson for penal reform charity the Howard League.
“Antisocial behaviour is a very loose term. It’s not very
well defined, depends on people’s perceptions and can simply
depend on what is in the papers that day. The Asbo is purely a
punitive response. There’s no attempt to address the causes
of the behaviour, there’s no restorative element to it, and
some of the restrictions are virtually impossible to stick to, so
young people are being set up to fail.”