The number of young people locked up in England and Wales has been rising inexorably towards 3,000 in the past year, despite the best efforts of the Youth Justice Board to steer sentencing policy towards community alternatives to jail. The repercussions have been severe: overcrowding; some under-18s imprisoned with adults and the consequent risk of “grooming” for a life of crime; and a deepening crisis over the administration of antisocial behaviour orders.
Although the latest figures from the YJB make no explicit mention of the impact of children jailed for Asbo breaches, there is ample evidence that it is a major contributor to the overall number of young people in prison. In the summer the board published research showing that more than 700 young people had been jailed for offences involving Asbo breaches since April 2004. Even then it was clear that the YJB’s target of reducing the juvenile prison population by 10 per cent by next year was in jeopardy; now it looks impossible.
That an illiberal reality belies the liberal ambitions of the YJB is illustrated by the proportion of young people with mental health problems who are put on Asbos. A study by the British Institute for Brain-Injured Children asked youth offending teams how many Asbos involved children who had a diagnosed mental health disorder or a learning difficulty. The answer was 35 per cent.
Many of these children have conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It seems that, for these young people, the best society has to offer them is custody instead of effective treatment.
What we are seeing is a new kind of underclass. Deemed untreatable or out of control or a combination of both, they have been swept out of an increasingly intolerant community and into prison. Rather than focus on treatment which seeks to contain behaviour problems, or on providing a wider range of intensive remedial programmes outside of prison, custody is still seen as the default option whenever the alternatives are considered by the government to be too costly or too difficult. And all too often vulnerable people fall foul of conflicting priorities among the police, housing, YOTs and social workers. If the descent into Asbo hell is to be arrested, everyone, the government included, will have to fall into line with the YJB.