An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Sunday, May 01, 2005  


Foreign readers have complained they can't see even current ST pages without paying. Outrageous! Here is article as it appeared. (in the print edition I'm beside Michael Portillo!!Anyone would think I was important...)

Comment: Sarah Carey: Asbos will just turn bored youngsters into criminals

DESPITE the fact that crime rates in Ireland are decreasing, last week politicians queued up to support the introduction of the anti-social behaviour order, better known as Asbo.
If you like your anti-crime measures draconian and harsh, Asbos are for you. Adopted in Britain in 1999, they are now regarded as the only way in which young thugs who terrorise neighbourhoods without actually breaking the law can be brought to heel.

Police obtain an Asbo by way of civil procedure against an individual, usually a child or young teenager, banning a certain kind of behaviour. It could be shouting, spitting, rampaging through a neighbour’s garden, defacing walls with graffiti or hanging around in an intimidating group at a street corner. Breaking an Asbo is a criminal offence, and in the UK is punishable by up to five years in jail. So without actually breaking a law, an offender can be imprisoned for as little as turning up on a forbidden street.

For harassed neighbours in the urban wastelands tacked onto Dublin, Cork and Limerick, Asbos will be an extremely popular measure. The summer holidays are looming, with three months of long evenings to be endured rather than enjoyed by residents in working-class estates. Gangs of bored teenagers will make their neighbours’ lives a misery with aggressive behaviour, while remaining immune from criminal proceedings. One can hardly blame the unfortunate inhabitants of deprived areas for demanding that someone put manners on these local louts.

Asbos are not targeted specifically at disadvantaged areas, of course. But as children in more affluent areas will be placed in energy-sapping summer camps and ferried from swimming to tennis lessons in SUVs, it’s unlikely that they will be the recipients of these orders.

It’s hardly a surprise that Michael McDowell is eager to put Asbos into the new Criminal Justice Bill. It’s even less of a surprise that Fine Gael, traditionally the standard-bearers of law and order, support not only the Asbos but also the on-the-spot fines proposed in the bill. The fines can be imposed by the gardai in a similar fashion to speeding tickets, allowing quick justice without recourse to a judge or jury. If the parents of the young offenders are in receipt of social welfare, Fine Gael proposes that the money be stopped from their payments.

Not to be outdone, Labour has stepped up with a “Take back our neighbourhood” policy, also supporting the introduction of Asbos. However, this does not sit easily with many in the party and the introduction to Labour’s policy document explains why Pat Rabbitte has decided to take a hard line with anti-social elements.

While Labour acknowledges the roots of a lot of anti-social behaviour lie in disadvantage and marginalisation, the party feels it should also stand up for the common good and act to protect communities from the scourge of anti-social behaviour.

One suspects this enthusiasm to be seen to be tough on crime has more to do with the popularity of Sinn Fein in disadvantaged areas. Sinn Fein has less formal, and possibly more effective, methods of controlling anti-social behaviour. But while the big parties propose this extreme measure in an attempt to compete with Sinn Fein in these enclaves, Gerry Adams’s party actually opposes Asbos.

Though it pains me to have to agree with Sinn Fein on anything, that opposition is soundly based. McDowell claimed last week that he supports Asbos because they have been seen to work in the UK. A trawl through the British press since 1999 reveals no such consensus. Instead one reads of a litany of failures. Asbos have turned into little more than authorised vigilantism, criminalising children, eccentrics and even the mentally ill.

We are used to reading court reports in which the identity of minor offenders is concealed so that their characters are not irretrievably stained. With Asbos not only is there no such protection, but offenders’ photographs are plastered around a locality and residents urged to report infringements. Even if the Asbo is never breached, what chance has its object of regaining their reputation? Would you hire someone you’d seen on a Not Wanted Here poster?

Those in favour of Asbos will argue that they act as an early warning system, giving potential offenders the opportunity to rectify their behaviour before falling foul of the criminal justice system. Success can only be claimed if the object of an Asbo neither breaches it nor commits a true crime. In Britain, 40% of Asbos are breached, thus criminalising teenagers for, in some cases, just hanging around. If there is any consensus, it is that putting young people in jail ensures their rehabilitation is a most unlikely outcome. McDowell’s Progressive Democrat colleague John Minihan claimed last week a 40% breach rate should be interpreted as a 60% success rate. This is not the case — defence lawyers in England will tell you that many of the 60% are later prosecuted for actual crimes.

If most Asbo recipients end up in jail anyway, how can McDowell claim that success in the UK is the basis of their introduction here? Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the system is the variety of behaviour targeted by Asbos. In the legislation on which they are based, Asbos can be issued for any behaviour “likely to cause alarm”. In England, a 23-year-old woman who repeatedly threw herself into the Avon was banned from jumping into rivers or canals. A mentally-ill man was prohibited from sniffing petrol anywhere in Teesside. Most famously, a woman was given one ordering her not to be seen wearing her underwear at her window or in her garden. The local Asbo unit handed out diaries to her neighbours to record when she was seen in her underwear. As Matt Foot of ASBO Concern observed, it gave a new meaning to neighbourhood watch.

If you are the victim of youths loitering aggressively on your street, you don’t care about these extreme examples. You just want the ruffians moved on. But given the failure of Asbos in the UK, they are clearly not the solution. Successful remedies are based on preventative strategies. If you want the youths to move on, they have to have somewhere to move to. The government simply has to put money into vulnerable communities to provide safe shelter and activities for young people.

Active community policing is also essential. The proposed on-the-spot fines are being compared to speeding tickets. But everyone knows that speeding fines have no effect on the numbers speeding; it is the sight of a patrol car that gets motorists to slow down. Similarly if you want to stop anti-social behaviour, you have to have police on the street all the time.

For those undeterred by the police presence, restorative justice is far more effective than jail time. This can encompass everything from meeting the victim of your crime to community service. Unruly youths are more likely to refrain from vandalising public spaces if they have been forced to clean that public space themselves.
Since it costs €250,000 per year to keep a juvenile in jail, spending money on young people before they commit a crime is extremely cost effective.

John Lonergan, governor of Mountjoy, has for years recommended targeting toddlers in those specific geographical locations that are known to produce criminal youths. If you want someone to behave at 13 you have to provide adequate care when they are three. Everything else is a waste of time and money.

The most frustrating element of the debate on juvenile offences is that both Fine Gael and Labour are perfectly well aware of these more effective solutions, which are even included in their policy documents. Unfortunately the political consensus in support of Asbos ensures that they will become the first line of defence rather than the last, and “softer” solutions will never see the light of day.

It is facile to expect opposition parties to oppose everything the government does. However, it is a pity that in this case Fine Gael and Labour did not choose to overcome their distaste of Sinn Fein and form a united opposition against these ugly instruments of social control.

posted by Sarah | 20:46 5 comments
An ASBO doesn't 'criminalize' anybody, it won't land anybody in prison for no reason and it won't stop you for putting money into improved services.

On the other hand, the sorts of behaviour that ASBO's might be able to prevent or regulate can effectively turn residents into prisoners in their own homes. This might not be seen very often in the leafier suburbs, but it definitely does happen in Dublin, more frequently than you might think.

The reason why ASBOs have become necessary is because the burden of proof to make a criminal prosecution in these sorts of cases is just too great. The reason for the problem is that the activity is characterized by a constant low level of annoying activity by members of a group, rather than any one serious, substantial criminal act.

There's no point in having community policing if the police don't have some sort of useful sanction. This stuff you hear about having police on the beat being a deterrent - it's just not true -. It's politician's hype, what people want to hear. It's not a useful strategy for dealing with crime.

The fact that there are stupid judges who make stupid orders doesn't prove anything one way or the other. There are big problems in the justice systems. What else is new?

Can you or John Lonergan produce any actual evidence that investing in education for toddlers will result in a reduction in crime? I'm not saying that it can't contribute, but it isn't the panacea you are portraying it as.

Do you also disagree with throwing council tenants out of their flats if they are involved in drug dealing? Afer all the practice is basically similar.
Sadly I don't live in a nice D4 suburb where low level baseball capped thuggery can be discussed as an abstract concept. There are certain parts of this city where the residents are under siege from anti-social behaviour. Parts of the city where you *will* be mugged, you cannot park your car safely and where the streets are effectively ruled by thugs. We've had years of increasing influence by the "prison is not a solution, we need to tackle the causes of crime these are all misunderstood little lambs" brigade and it isn't having an effect.

I don't want to hear about how tragic someones childhood is while they're trying to steal my phone on the end of a syringe, I just want to be able to go about my life without having to put up with this. I'm willing to go with ASBOs as an experiment, if they assist in addressing the problem well and good, if not I don't see much of a downside.
the thing is that mugging, car theft, and syringe robbery are already crimes. ASBO's are to stop youths kicking a football against your garden wall every nigh 'til midnight driving you demented and possible intimidating you. All I'm saying is if you build a snooker hall they'll have somewhere to hang out instead of your front gate.
I don't subscribe to the notion that what we term "anti social behaviour" is mostly down to boredom. Someone during the UK election (could have been Tony Blair himself) referred to this as a "respect" issue. There is a generation growing up who lack basic respect for humanity & property. We could endlessly argue about causes (family breakdown, role models whatever), but communities that are on the receiving end of this "lack of respect" are demanding immediate action and not endless bleating from the chattering classes. ASBOs offer a means to deal with "respect" issues - I agree that they have not been fully proven, but I haven't seen much in the way of short term alternatives proposed. On this issue I don't have much respect for the opinions of those who won't even accept social housing in their postcode.
There is plenty of evidence that childhood poverty is a predictor of adult social exclusion (including criminal behaviour). Some references at the end of this post. *

Thus investing in children's welfare and exclusion is the best way of improving their life chances and ultimately reducing the amount of anti-social behaviour. In the UK, the Labour government have the elimination of child poverty as one of their big objectives. So along with the ASBOs they are also trying to tackle one of the main causes of deliquent behaviour. The PDs and FF might gain a bit of credibility that they are really interested in solving this problem if they adopted a similar approach. It seems a missed opportunity for us not to try to use our newly acquired wealth to try to eliminate childhood poverty and give more opportunities to the kids from less leafy suburbs.

London School of Economics
(Look for CASE 88 Social Mobility, Life Chances, and the Early Years; CASE 51 Social Exclusion and Children: A European view for a US debate; CASE 49 Growing Up: School, family and area influences on adolescents' later life chances; CASE 43 The Roles of Schooling and Educational Qualifications in the Emergence of Adult Social Exclusion)
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