Pstcode punishment

When the early 1980s comedy show Not the Nine O’Clock News ran a
sketch about a man repeatedly arrested for non-offences such as
“wearing a loud shirt in a built-up area”, it was taken as a hugely
exaggerated satire on police racism. Twenty-five years later it
reads more like a genuine list of restrictions imposed on the
recipients of antisocial behaviour orders.

Is arresting someone for “walking on the cracks in the pavement”
really any more ridiculous than for answering the front door in
their underwear (banned under a recent Asbo issued to a 27-year-old
woman in East Kilbride)? Does the offence of “loitering with intent
to use a pedestrian crossing” seem so far-fetched to the prostitute
recently banned from carrying condoms, the 13-year-old who can now
be arrested for using the word “grass” anywhere in England or Wales
or the 87-year-old man whose Asbo prevents him being sarcastic to
his neighbours? And surely even comedy scriptwriters couldn’t have
imagined north Norfolk’s use of antisocial behaviour legislation to
curb a herd of misbehaving pigs.

Defenders of the Asbo point to the undoubted misery that can be
caused to communities by antisocial behaviour, and the need for
legislation with teeth to combat it. Home secretary Charles Clarke,
while announcing advice for councils to “name and shame” Asbo
recipients, recently linked the increased use of Asbos with a
corresponding fall in crime. “For the first time in years people
are starting to feel the effect of the action taken to tackle the
problem,” he claimed.

Elsewhere, however, there is concern that the Asbo is fast
becoming the one-size-fits-all solution to an ever-growing list of
activities considered eccentric or inconvenient.

Introduced in 1999 as part of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998,
Asbos were initially viewed with caution. In England and Wales only
158 were imposed between April 1999 and March 2000 – but that
figure has since leapt up. Local authorities and police forces are
embracing Asbos with growing enthusiasm, and last year nearly 1,000
were issued in the first six months in England and Wales. A similar
escalation has been seen in Scotland where the use of Asbos has
increased by 87 per cent between 2002-3 and 2003-4.

The bulk of this growth can be attributed to a small number of
local authorities, police forces and, particularly in Scotland,
registered social landlords. This has resulted in a huge
geographical variation in the numbers of Asbos imposed.

For instance, six times as many Asbos are imposed in Greater
Manchester than in neighbouring Liverpool, and in the first six
months of last year 128 Asbos were issued in West Yorkshire
compared with just 22 in South Yorkshire. Over the same period only
21 Asbos were issued in the whole of Wales compared with 931 in
England. Furthermore, in Scotland, a recent survey by the Scottish
executive concluded that the pattern of Asbo use across the country
bore little relation to the actual incidence of antisocial

This postcode lottery has raised concerns that some local
authorities and police forces are using Asbos to bypass the
criminal justice system. As a civil measure imposed by the
magistrate’s court, an Asbo involves a lot less legwork for local
authorities and the police than seeking a conviction through the
criminal courts. But, because breaching an Asbo is a criminal
offence punishable by up to five years in prison, recipients can
end up receiving far harsher penalties than if they had been
arrested, charged and convicted of their original offence.

A 26-year-old homeless man from Birmingham recently received two
sentences totalling five years after breaching his Asbo by begging.
But begging itself is not an imprisonable offence and it doesn’t
fit with the original legislation’s guidance that Asbos should not
be targeted against activities that can be dealt with effectively
under existing legislation.

Another area of concern, that also appears remote from the
original intention of antisocial behaviour legislation, is the use
of Asbos against people who clearly have personality or mental
health problems and will therefore be highly unlikely to be able to
comply with the order’s terms. It is difficult to see what can be
gained by the Asbo banning an alcoholic from drinking alcohol or
the order that bans a suicidal woman from jumping in the river

“Evidence continues to emerge of Asbos being used by police and
local authorities as a catch-all to sweep off the streets anyone
whose behaviour is eccentric or to some people is disagreeable,”
says Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National
Association of Probation Officers (Napo).

Fletcher is the author of a recent Napo report that calls on the
Home Office to review the role and purpose of Asbos and the
resulting sentencing discrepancies. Published to coincide with the
launch of a multi-agency campaign, Asbo Concern, the report claims
that some councils are using Asbos to clear sink estates of
problematic families and individuals. “This appears to avoid
dealing with wider environmental problems on those estates and also
avoids putting in place wider social policies that would deal with
the underlying problems of antisocial behaviour,” it says.

To a certain extent, the increasing use of Asbos is undermining
efforts to reduce the use of custody for young offenders. In
England and Wales about 54 per cent of all Asbos are imposed on
people under the age of 18. Over one-third of these orders are
breached and 43 per cent of breaches result in custody.

This is in stark contrast to the situation in Scotland where,
until October last year, Asbos could not be given to anyone under
the age of 16. Current figures show that just 13 per cent of Asbo
recipients in Scotland are under 18 and a report recently
commissioned by the Scottish executive concluded that “it appears
very unlikely that the extension of the Asbo regime to young people
aged 12-15 will generate a dramatic increase in the overall use of

According to a report from the Youth Justice Board, as most
Asbos are issued by the civil courts, they are not recorded or
tracked by youth offending teams. Opportunities to intervene with
preventive strategies may therefore be missed.

“A young person issued with an Asbo in a civil court may only
come to the attention of the Yot when they are in a criminal court,
facing a custodial sentence after breaching their order,” says the

According to Chris Stanley, head of youth crime at crime
reduction charity Nacro, there is little evidence that Asbos have
any long-term effect on young people’s behaviour. Money would be
far better spent on improving the use of preventive strategies, he

“Asbo breaches have created a fast route into custody and a
situation where young people are ending up in custody for low-level
disorder offences which would not warrant a custodial sentence
under normal circumstances. With 82 per cent of young offenders
re-offending within two years of release from custody, we know that
prison is not effective in tackling the root causes of offending
behaviour or reducing future offending.”

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform,
also believes that Asbos are too blunt a tool to offer an effective
solution to antisocial behaviour.

“Current legislation has the effect of widening the net of the
criminal justice system, by criminalising naughty children and
their parents, the mentally ill and those in social housing,” she

“We appreciate the distress that serious antisocial behaviour
can cause individuals or communities, but, in order to address this
effectively, imaginative and effective child-centred interventions
are needed.” Asbos, no matter how popular they become, are never
going to fit that bill.

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