Punish and be damned

More and more young people are being issued with antisocial behaviour orders. LAUREN REVANS reports on the dangers of failing to match these orders with the necessary support

According to many who work with young people at risk, using antisocial behaviour orders to try to prevent children from behaving in certain ways is akin to trying to crack a nut with a hammer: for the most part, these blunt instruments will be more destructive than effective.

Even the former head of the prison service, Martin Narey – now head of children’s charity Barnardo’s – has described Asbos without support as “a hopeless waste of time for young people”. He warns that Asbos are catapulting some children into custody who would otherwise be nowhere near it.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Asbos were never originally intended for young people. Kathy Evans, policy director at the Children’s Society, remembers numerous reassurances from politicians as the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 made its way through Parliament that the new orders would rarely be used for children.

But this is a far cry from the picture painted by the official Asbo statistics (see fact file below). And there are no signs of the Asbo frenzy abating. Almost half of the Asbos issued to young people between June 2000 and June 2005 were issued in the last 12 months of this period. And the government has made it clear that we can only expect to see more Asbos, not less, in the future.

Evans says that, in contrast to many of the ways in which other aspects of the youth justice system have reformed in recent years, Asbos have no sense of being child-centred.

“The biggest concern about Asbos is that they operate on an assumption that a child will understand and react logically to a court telling them not to do something,” she says. “But all our experience in working with children in trouble suggests it’s not that simple. If there are real problems there, we have got to do more than that.

“We know of teenagers given Asbos for 10 years,  or life-long Asbos. That is way out of proportion and doesn’t allow for rehabilitation. These are not child-friendly measures in the way they are drafted,created or often used.”

The situation was made worse last summer when the government put an end to automatic reporting restrictions on the media when Asbos are breached.

The children’s commissioner and the head of the Youth Justice Board have joined children’s workers and campaigners from across the country in condemning this “naming and shaming” policy in relation to young people as both counter-productive and a breach of children’s rights.

The official line on Asbos is that they are civil orders aimed at stopping problem behaviour, not punishing individuals. The idea is that they impose restrictions on the behaviour of individuals in order to protect communities from intimidating activity. And the Home Offi ce is keen to stress that they are by no means a last-resort measure, but rather just one of a range of tools available.

But for many people working with children and young people, this explanation simply does not wash. They see Asbos as a punitive tool that should never be used until all other routes of support and intervention have been explored and, even then, only if support to help an individual understand why their behaviour is deemed inappropriate and how they can go about  changing it is also available.

“Young people should be given the opportunity to respond to and comply with informal measures first,” argues Chris Chaston, senior policy officer at Rainer, a charity for under-supported young people. “That can be more meaningful for young people. It is about them entering into a contract with the community – and that can be effective.”

Will McMahon, acting director of the Crime and Society Foundation, believes Asbos are the zenith of the slippage from welfare support to punishment and control. He argues that social services have become so focused on top-end child protection work that they have little time for young people who, while troubling, may also be troubled.

“If you are having young people who are displaying troubling behaviour, your first thought should be why, what is going on in their family or other places? But you can only do that if it is not through the criminal justice system. “The last thing a young person will talk to you about is what’s bad when you are already telling them that they are bad. You need a multi-disciplinary, multi-agency approach that does not involve criminal justice.”

In recognition of some of the calls for support for young people with Asbos, the government introduced the individual support order under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. These orders can be attached to Asbos made against young people and impose positive conditions on them in a bid to tackle the underlying causes of their behaviour.

However, in July 2005, the Home Office admitted that only seven such orders had been issued with Asbos since their introduction in May 2004. Embarrassed by the figures, the government announced an extra £500,000 for the support orders. A few months later, it promised that the introduction of new annual reviews of Asbos given to young people would provide an opportunity to ensure young people have the support in place they need not to breach them, as well as allowing changes in individuals’ behaviour to be taken into account.

Chaston insists that, where Asbos are issued to young people, it is essential that a support order is issued too. “If you are just imposing a punitive framework, you run the risk of a young person misunderstanding why the Asbo is there in the fi rst place, and therefore potentially not complying, and therefore potentially breaching it – and that is the fasttrack into custody.

“If you are going to bang an order on them saying they can’t go here or there, it will have no meaning unless you have someone there reinforcing the positive behaviour and working on the negative.”

Chaston says there is also an onus on local agencies to look at whether local support networks and activities that can divert young people away from trouble are in place and properly resourced. In some areas, this has already been taken on board. In Surrey, for example, the council and police authority recently launched a three-year project involving four multi-agency teams who go out into the communities visiting schools, colleges and youth centres to encourage young people to get involved in constructive activities.

“We get tasked into areas deemed as hot-spot areas,” explains Sam Dorsett, youth development service personal adviser for the Surrey Together Project. “We go in and work with young people to work out what their needs are and to help get them into more prosocial activities, such as helping them set up a football match or a youth café.

“It seems to be having a good effect – the local police are saying the crime levels and antisocial behaviour levels are down.”

There is, then, some cause for hope. Youth Matters, the youth green paper published last summer, talks extensively about positive activities for young people and meeting local demands. And
January’s Respect Action Plan has a chapter on targeting disadvantaged young people through sport and art, as well as encouraging volunteering.

“It did feel like there was an identifiable change,” Evans says, hopefully. “But I don’t know whether that translates into actual change in terms of policy implementation.”

Give them more support’
Mark Cooper, a youth justice worker with Leeds Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme, has witnessed first hand young people ending up in court and behind bars for trivial things that, while amounting to a breach of their Asbo, would not otherwise constitute a criminal offence.“It can be as simple as them crossing the wrong road,” Cooper says. “The Asbo is a piece of  paper; a file that they are given which records what they have done and says that they can do that and they can’t do this, that they can’t be seen with more than two friends at a time etc. But that doesn’t help people stop committing crimes. What helps is giving them support.”

‘A reformed character’
Leeford Walker, 20,  was billed in the national press earlier this year as the boy whose Asbo worked. In fact, the order did little to change his behaviour, and it wasn’t until he was placed in the care of Leeds Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme that he started to turn his life around. It was this support – and the birth of his daughter – that ultimately led to his five-year Asbo being lifted three years early:

“The first time I got in trouble with the police was when I was nine when I got caught stealing a phone. After that I did a bit of everything really – drug dealing, taking cars, robbing houses,
robbing people, dangerous driving. I ended up in court a few times and was eventually given an Asbo in 2003 when I was 15.

“Initially it sort of worked, but then I though ‘fuck that, I’m not sticking to that’. So I didn’t. And I didn’t get caught.

“But then I went to court for dangerous driving so was charged with breaching my Asbo too. The judge was looking to give me a custodial sentence, but I asked him if I could have an ISSP because I didn’t get any support.

“The six-month ISSP was part of a 12-month community sentence. It involved 25 hours a week doing sessions and other stuff, including offence-focus sessions and crime sessions. I particularly remember the car crime session. It was about what happens in a car crash. I thought ‘bloody hell, I’m not getting in another car’. It hit me hard, that one.

“But it was the birth of my daughter, Nevai, in April 2004 that really made me start to think about things differently. I’m a different kind of guy now.

“I’m thinking about rejoining the army – I originally joined straight from school and am still a member of the TA. But at the moment, I’m working  at the ISSP office where I used to go.I can talk to lots of people and get through to them differently because I can understand where they’re coming from – I’ve been there.”

Fact File:
– 2,801 Asbos were given to children aged 10 to 17 in England and Wales between June 2000 and June 2005
– Since 2000, young poeple have received between 40% and 59% of the total number of Asbos issued each year
– Of the 40% of juveniles who breached their Asbo in 2003, almost half ended up behind bars
– One in six of the young people given a custodial sentence for breaching their Asbo in 2003 had committed no other offence


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