INCREASING NUMBERS of chidren are being locked up in Britain’s prisons, not because they have committed a criminal offence but because they have fallen foul of draconian Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs).
The number of Asbos issued is set to rocket after a ruling in the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday of last week.
The human rights organisation Liberty brought a case alleging that Brent council in north west London and the Metropolitan Police had acted illegally by publicising the identity of three young men who had been served with Asbos.
The council and the police printed the men’s names, addresses and photographs, along with details of the orders against them, in leaflets, a newsletter and on a website.
The leaflets were then distributed to local residents, who were asked to tell the police if they saw any of the young men in the area.
Lord Justice Kennedy and Mr Justice Treacy ruled that this was not a breach of the young men’s human rights.
Meanwhile, as a result of the council’s naming and shaming policies, the men and their families have suffered from vigilantism, including verbal abuse, threats and bullying.
Beccy Palmer, a youth worker in the Brent area, said, “The decision sets a dangerous precedent. The stigma and the reputation will be with them forever.”
ASBOs are a cornerstone of Tony Blair’s proclaimed mission to crack down on the nuisance behaviour that he says blights life in many working class communities.
But, far from rebuilding communities, the ASBOs are tearing them apart.
ASBOs are increasingly being issued for trivial reasons. A barrister in Camden was served with an Asbo for banging her mop against her floors and walls.
Two brothers in Manchester, aged 11 and 12, were banned from wearing balaclavas. One 14 year old has been banned from misbehaving at school.
A woman who played loud music has been banned from owning a stereo, radio or TV.
A couple in the Midlands were banned from playing “gansta rap” containing words deemed offensive.
Age is no barrier to getting an ASBO. A ten year old in Bath has been banned from carrying matches, while a 87 year old from Merseyside has been banned from harassing his neighbours after a row over a hedge.
A homeless alcolohic was served an ASBO banning him from Aldershot. He returned to the town to see his girlfriend of 30 years, only to be jailed for three months for breaching the order.
Young people can be served ASBOs even when they have done absolutely nothing wrong.
Several London boroughs imposed curfews last summer.
Children caught in the wrong area who refuse to move on could be held in a police cell and handed a custodial sentence or a £5,000 fine.
ASBOs have been served against people protesting peacefully over arms sales and cruelty to animals.
ASBO hearings are civil not criminal proceedings, so they don’t require proof beyond reasonable doubt. They take away the principle of people being innocent until proven guilty.
Hearsay, or gossip, is also admissible in ASBO hearings. Evidence can be submitted anonymously.
Although ASBOs are issued through civil proceedings, breaking the terms of the order is a criminal offence.
Punishments can be as high as five years in prison. Already, sentences of up to eight months have been handed out to teenagers for breaching ASBOs.
One high profile case involved an ASBO being issued to stop a teenager waging a vicious campaign of racist behaviour.
But criminal laws already exist which prohibit such racist harrassment, along with the drug dealing and violence the government says it wants to stamp out.
“This is part of an argument about how the law is used and how people are convicted,” says Beccy Palmer.
The ability to hand out ASBOs to children as young as ten is seen by some as a way to criminalise children by the back door. There are record numbers of children in prison under New Labour.
As well as criminalising people, ASBOs are also being used to evict people from their homes.
Housing associations work with the police and local authorities to secure the orders. They then use the ASBOs to evict those, or the families of those, who receive them.