I was at a party with a lot of lawyers last night, and there were some truly hideous ASBO stories floating around. (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders: these direct people - in about half of the cases - children, not to do certain things, on the pain of their contravention making that action criminal - and imprisonable - when it would not otherwise be.)
Classic was the case of the female alcoholic - harmless, cheerful, but the neighbours didn't like to see her sitting on a park bench with her White Lightning (super-cheap cider, the preferred drink on the street). She got an ASBO forbidding her to have an open alcoholic container in the street; so the next time she sees a police officer she smiles cheerfully, raises her bottle and politely says "cheers" to him. Six months in jail - bang. And next time it will be two years. And soon she'll be spending life in prison for drinking in the street. (And they wonder why the jails are full.)
It is even worse when the targets are children - children as young as TEN - as the government's own "youth crime tsar" has complained today:
Professor Rod Morgan, the Government's chief adviser on youth crime, today issues a warning that children as young as 10 are being labelled with "the mark of Cain on their foreheads" because of the furore over anti-social behaviour.
Calling for a radical rethink in how we deal with unruly teenagers, Professor Morgan says that discretion should be exercised in cases where children are being sent to court for offences that would once have been dealt with by a slap on the wrist. ...
Record numbers of children are being sent to court, although the actual level of youth offending has remained the same over the past decade. Ten years ago about a third of the 200,000 children in the criminal justice system every year went to court. Today the figure is closer to half.
I was watching a group of local 12-year-olds doing something mildly destructive recently (what they were being destructive with was some already broken frames for temporary fencing, so I didn't intervene) and realised that the messing around they were doing would once have been regarded as perfectly normal, whereas now sooner or later someone was certain to call the police.
Until even very recently in London there were derelict sites, building sites, places where a group of kids would build a den and muck around, smashing up waste materials, making lots of noise, sorting out their own battles independently of adults. That involved, no doubt, more than the occasional nasty injury, more than a bit of bullying, and a level of risk that would be considered wholly unacceptable today. There are, however, now virtually none of those spaces left; they are boarded up, fenced off, guarded by security men and dogs. The kids are doing exactly the same things they used to do, but now risk being criminalised for them.
And yet, as this Observer story makes clear, children still find spaces to vanish into as runaways. But they are, I suspect more hidden, private spaces than in the past, and hence far more dangerous ones, particularly for the girls.