Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) were introduced by the Labour government in 1998. Initially around 200 orders were served every year. That figure has rapidly risen - some 2,600 Asbos were served in 2003.
And recent months have seen a staggering increase in the number of young people locked up for breaching orders served against them.
Figures from the Youth Justice Board show that nearly 50 young people were in custody for breaching an Asbo in any month in 2004. That compares to an average of three young people a month between 2000 and 2002.
Asbos can be served against anyone over ten years old, provided they have behaved “in an anti-social manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”, and that the order is “necessary to protect persons from further anti-social acts”.
This definition is so vague it can extend to virtually any act. That is why there have been many examples of Asbos banning behaviour that is not in itself criminal, such as playing football or being sarcastic.
Asbos are made by magistrates’ courts after civil, not criminal, proceedings. This means that hearsay evidence is allowed - allegations can be upheld simply on gossip. In practice, courts grant 97 percent of Asbos applied for.
And the number of bodies that can apply for Asbos is also increasing - it includes local councils, the police, housing associations and housing action trusts.
Breaching an Asbo is a criminal offence, carrying a penalty of up to five years imprisonment. Some 50 percent of Asbos are served against young people, who can be given detention training orders lasting up to two years.
Courts dealing with a breach are expressly prohibited from imposing a conditional discharge as a sentence. Magistrates’ guidelines recommend a custodial sentence as the starting point for a first time offender.
Home Office research is woefully out of date - its figures are from 2002. But even these show that 36 percent of Asbos were breached. Two thirds of those sentenced went to prison, for an average of 139 days.
Many of those in custody are there for offences that either are not criminal or were not imprisonable before the introduction of Asbos, such as begging or prostitution.
The Home Office claims it costs £5,000 to serve an Asbo. But this estimate does not include court or defence costs - or the very high cost of imprisoning those who breach their orders. The average cost of a custodial place is £36,000 for an adult and £78,000 for a youth.
Asbos are part of a whole package of measures New Labour has brought in against communities. Home secretary David Blunkett has also given police the power to impose “dispersal orders”.
These orders prevent people - almost always children - gathering in particular places. Over 400 dispersal orders were made in the nine months between January and September this year.
The dispersal orders mean that anyone who refuses to follow a police officer’s directions to disperse can be arrested and face three months in prison.
New Labour has announced plans for more Asbo courts and greater use of Asbos in alcohol-related crime. The announcement was made despite the fact that the Home Office has not yet produced any figures for Asbo breaches in 2003 or 2004.
Matt Foot is a criminal defence solicitor with Michael Fisher Solicitors