What’s the difference between teenagers hanging around a street
corner in 2004 and in 1994? Apart from the make of their trainers
changing over the decade, you would think not a lot. But under the
government’s antisocial behaviour legislation teenagers today have
less freedom to hang out where they want with their mates than they
would have done 10 years ago.
What is deemed acceptable behaviour – such as loitering on streets
– to one generation can cause untold distress for another. With
this in mind, the government introduced antisocial behaviour orders
(Asbos) in England and Wales via the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
Asbos came into force on 1 April 1999 and, for the first time,
allowed councils and police to apply to a magistrates’ court for an
order prohibiting a named individual from causing harassment, alarm
or distress in a particular area.
From December 2002 housing associations and the British Transport
Police could also apply for Asbos under measures in the Police
Reform Act 2002.
Asbos do not have a maximum time limit – there have been cases of
them banning people for life from a location – although the minimum
is two years. Their most controversial element is that they can be
applied to children as young as 10. Although an Asbo is a civil
order, breaching one is a criminal offence and, if convicted, the
individual concerned can face up to five years’ imprisonment. This
means that a child aged 10 could go into custody if they breach
Last month, home secretary David Blunkett added fuel to the fire
when he told the Labour Party conference that he would legislate to
make it easier for the media to name and shame under-18s who
breached their Asbos.
Pauline Batstone, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team
Managers, is “deeply concerned” at the knock-on effect on the
numbers of young people going into custody because of Asbos. She
says young people are entering the criminal justice system through
breaching their Asbos, being labelled “persistent young offenders”
and going into custody without ever having committed a criminal
offence outside the antisocial behaviour arena. This makes the
rehabilitation of the young person harder if they get a criminal
record, she adds.
This point is picked up by Will McMann, senior associate at the
Crime and Society Foundation in Kings College London. “Involving
anybody in the criminal justice system, regardless of their age,
makes it more difficult for them to return to normal societal
activities,” he says.
McMann believes Asbos give young people, who are often vulnerable
and known to social services, the message that their behaviour will
not be tolerated but they won’t receive any support to assist them.
He adds: “If the government wants to build strong communities it is
going to have to involve young people but it is going in entirely
the wrong direction when it says it does not want them to hang
around the street or act communally.”
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform,
calls for social care workers to challenge inappropriate Asbos when
they are issued. “Professionals should stand up and celebrate the
work they do and stress it is more important than criminalising
So what should be done to help young people in receipt of an Asbo
or in danger of getting one? Batstone argues for a multi-agency,
preventive approach: “Asbos seem a dreadful admission of defeat by
the agencies who should be working with these young people and
Home Office figures reveal a total of 2,455 Asbos issued across
England and Wales between April 1999 and March this year. Of these
1,169 were awarded to children aged 10-17 and 1,134 were issued to
people aged 18 and over. Between 1 June 2000 and 31 December 2002,
474 Asbos were issued to children in England and Wales. Of these,
170 children breached them, resulting in 71 receiving a custodial