Asbos that leave young people without support

In the summer, the government published an article aimed at agencies within the Criminal Justice System to dispel the so-called “myths” around the use of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos). It stated that, with the availability of individual support orders (ISOs) and parenting orders, it was unfair to suggest that they punish vulnerable people rather than giving them support. It even went as far as saying that ISOs “are proving successful in many areas”.

But of the 9,853 Asbos issued up to the end of December 2005, only 49 had ISOs attached to them. When MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee raised this discrepancy with senior civil servants in July they struggled to account for the low take-up of ISOs, insisting that “these things are very new”. Yet ISOs were introduced for 10- to 17-year-olds subject to an Asbo almost four years ago, under the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Similarly, despite an extra £45m being given to the Youth Justice Board in 2006, only six youth offending teams out of 156 in England and Wales applied for money to support ISOs. The National Audit Office put this down to a lack of resources, but some agencies may also believe that the government’s strategy on antisocial behaviour is too punitive.

One of the major issues that has had an impact on the low take-up rate of ISOs is the conditions on their use. Apart from the fact that they are only applicable to young people (when 60% of Asbos are issued to adults), they can also only be attached to a conventional Asbo, not one applied for a criminal conviction.

The latter, introduced in 2002 and known as criminal Asbos or Crasbos, now account for almost 65% of all Asbos issued and their imposition often results in the multi-agency consultative process that normally applies being sidestepped as applications for Crasbos are heard immediately after sentence. This means that, in the main, no consideration is given to support or rehabilitative work with an individual before resorting to the considerable sanction of an Asbo.

Many writers on youth and social policy have suggested that Crasbos have propelled people – and particularly the young and vulnerable – into custody. In my own study of Asbos in Northern England in 2006, involving interviews with practitioners and those subject to Asbos, many practitioners expressed the view that the orders were about getting people into prison.

Of those subject to the orders, prison was the main consequence for 71% of them should they breach them.

One 16-year-old in prison had a very pessimistic view of what Asbo breaches mean to his and others’ future prospects: “They just force kids in and out of prison, and in and out of prison,” he says. “That’s the way it goes: go to prison, come back out, breach it, go to prisonAnd then, by the time they get to 30, they realise ‘what am I doing this for?’. They get themselves out of prison and become some big arse criminal. That’s what happens. You never see anyone who’s gone to prison and come out a whole new changed person do you?”

Previous research has shown that policies that lead to greater incarceration can have unintended criminogenic effects, such as restricting future employment prospects, which in turn leads to individuals committing more crime.

As one practitioner put it: “In most cases, I feel that Asbos lead to greater criminality of young people. More opportunity for structured and agreeable unstructured activities is required. More thought needs to be put in to the conditions and more support given to avoid breach action.”

My research suggests that, once in prison, little or no support is available to address young people’s offending behaviour. In one case, one young man had been offered some help but their prison sentence had cut across it: “I should be starting the Prince’s Trust this month and a Think First course, but because I’ve been remanded I can’t do them,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal urged those responsible for passing sentence to consider the fact that custody at this time is even more punitive than normal due to the chronic overcrowding in the secure estate. This considerably reduces the opportunity of the Prison Service to engage in any effective rehabilitation schemes. With the accelerating use of Asbos and subsequent breach rate, many more people may be left without the necessary support or help either before they go to prison, or afterwards.

It was evident from my interviews that many of those people subject to Asbos had underlying problems such as drug and alcohol dependency, mental health issues or dysfunctional families, and most originated from socially deprived housing estates. Yet little or no support had been offered. Efforts to divert young people into positive activities were lacking.

Evidence and examples of good practice suggest that a tiered approach to intervention is the way forward. And, maybe, having listened to the concerns of different agencies, the changes to legislation outlined in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill currently going through parliament will have an impact. In particular, the bill’s proposals for 12-month reviews of Asbos, which would include an examination of the support available as well as the extension of ISOs to Crasbos, are to be welcomed.

The public accounts committee concluded that the Home Office has recently encouraged local areas to tackle antisocial behaviour using measures such as the Asbo and that the emphasis has been mainly upon enforcement. Perhaps the legal changes proposed might finally debunk the myth that Asbos are about punishing people and not providing support.

An ISO is a civil order that can be imposed by a court or requested by a complainant and directs a young person to undertake activities to address their antisocial behaviour. They last for up to six months and those subject to them attend up to two sessions a week. One of the main reasons given for the low take up has been the cost, which is estimated at £1,500 per order.

Neil Wain is chief superintendent with Greater Manchester Police and author of The ASBO – Wrong Turning, Dead End, published by The Howard League for Penal Reform in September. He is writing in a personal capacity

This article appeared in the 18 October issue under the headline “Where’s the support”

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