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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

ASBO roulette

The whole subject of ASBOs has been in the news today following a report from the Institute for Criminal Policy Research which found more than 66% of people thought prevention was the best way to tackle rowdiness and vandalism.

I support the use of ASBOs when they are utilised properly and as part of a process that includes prevention and working with potential recipients on a voluntary basis. That is how the Police forces in South and Mid and West Wales operate and as a result they have a smaller than average number of ASBOs but achieve the same results as other forces in terms of dealing with anti-social behaviour.

The Guardian this morning deals with this matter in some detail:

'while those whose lives are made a misery from antisocial neighbours feel Asbos fall short of the protection they need, many lawyers believe the orders are too easy to get. Roger Smith, director of the law reform group Justice, calls Asbos a "jurisprudential Frankenstein". He argues that they are an uneasy legal hybrid which effectively criminalises people for behaviour that is not criminal. Orders can be made solely on the basis of hearsay evidence, even though breach of one can result in five years in jail. "They require someone to act 'in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself'," Smith says. "The alarm may be conjectural, not actual, or the police may just say it is likely."

The article goes on to highlight the dangers when the authorities fail to use this tool in a responsible way:

"This year Asbos have gone out of control," says Harry Fletcher, Napo's assistant general secretary. "It appears that some councils and police forces are using them to get rid of any sort of unacceptable behaviour, whether it is eccentric or anti-social." Some 2,600 orders have been made since November 2003, with councils such as Camden and Manchester blazing the way. (Manchester's website proudly claims that it "now leads the UK in the use of Asbos".)

"You are five times more likely to be Asbo-ed in Manchester than Liverpool," reckons Fletcher who calls them "a cheap way of avoiding criminal prosecutions". Applications by councils, police - or both - for orders are almost always successful. According to Fletcher, the success rate for applications is 97%. "I don't think there is a hit rate like that for any other measure in the criminal justice system."

Some of the examples they give really are astonishing:

In the past few months the boundaries of what constitutes anti-social behaviour have been stretched. Orders have been served on a Norfolk farmer after his pigs ran amok in neighbours' gardens and on a Scottish woman banning her from answering her front door in her underwear. She faces jail if she is seen in her garden or windows in knickers and bra (neighbours have been equipped with "Asbo diaries" to record the event). In March, magistrates in Bath served an Asbo on a 23-year old woman who repeatedly tried to kill herself. She has been rescued from the River Avon three times, found "hanging by her fingertips" from a railway bridge and has been loitering at the top of multistorey car parks. The magistrates considered it an appropriate response to issue an Asbo banning the suicidal woman from going near railway lines, rivers, or bridges.

The relentless march of the Asbo was dealt a blow last month by a judge who threw out an attempt by the Ministry of Defence to issue an order against Quaker peace campaigner Lindis Percy. There was applause when Judge Roy Anderson dismissed it as an effort "to use a club to beat down the expression of legitimate comment and the expression of views on matters of public concern".

But relatively harmless activities can still be treated harshly. Matt Foot, a criminal defence lawyer at Michael Fisher solicitors in central London, recently represented a one-legged beggar with learning difficulties who had breached his order and ended up in prison. "His order stipulated that he shouldn't show his stump while begging," he says. "I thought in a civilised society that's going too far." Begging is not an imprisonable offence, he points out, and yet his client faced five years for breaching his order.

In the Welsh Police forces there is some perspective applied to the use of these orders. Popular as they might be with the general public there needs to be a recognition elsewhere that they are not a panacea to all ills and that in some circumstances their use can perpetrate a grave injustice that cannot be defended.
Anyone interested may like to go to www.bog-bro.blogspot.com to see what is happening in Rochdale MBC re anti social behaviour.

A model Authority is Bexley who have beacon Staus and a superb web site see

The Rowntree report is very interesting, however the elederly, who tend to vote in Local Elections are listened to very carefully.
While local authorities do need powers to deal with anti-social behaviour, they must address the causes of such behaviour rather than concentrating on punitive measures. The rhetoric of government does not help this, and merely distracts from the failure to deal with deprived neighbourhoods and failure to provide services and support for deprived adolescents.
The fundamental problem with ASBOS are that they overturn the principle that the law applies equally to everybody. Now each person can have their own “invidualised crime” with much harsher penalties then the rest of the public. There is absolutely no control over the actions that could become “criminal”, it is entirely left to the magistrates, save for a vague assumption that the European Convention on Human Rights will be respected. It is probably the single most serious attack on individual civil liberties which this government has yet devised.
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