Philobiblon: The demonisation of the young

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The demonisation of the young

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.


Blogger clanger said...

Thats the sort of piece written by someone lucky enough to live somewhere where gangs of youths (including kids under 12) don't make life hell for residents, victimising families, and destroying their lives.

ASBOs are the only hope many victims have, and one was recently requested locally after over a year of abusive behaviour amounting to more than 250 logged incidents. The victim broke down in court whilst testifying simply to get an ASBO. Nobody should have to suffer that much.

Most youths (and kids) are still well behaved, but the minority who operate as feral gangs are more dangerous than they have ever been before. They drive people to suicide, destroy the lives of entire families, and rip communities apart. And they usually get away with it.

An ASBO should be granted within 12 hours, not 12 months. 12 months is a long time waiting for the brick through the window, or the firework through the letterbox, the daily dog crap on the path, and the 24/7 intimidation. 12 months is 8,760 hours of fear, sleepless nights, degrading mental health, and time wiped away from their lives.

An ASBO is often replacement parenting, because the parents aren't fit, or capable of bringing their own kids up to behave.

A few years ago, Clanger saw one of his old estate's most notorious youths, then under 12, but big for his age, looking 15 or 16 if you didn't know him involved in an 'incident'. He saw a woman making a phone call in the local phonebox, ran across the road and started running round it, hammering on the sides, screaming that he was going to rape her.

That was not a major incident by the estate's standard and would not have led to any police action other than an addition to the kid's long list of unpleasant acts, due to his age. The kid in question would have seen it as a mild bit of fun, one of many in his action-packed day. Its a typical incident for many estates. It's the sort of 'pastime' that has replaced scrabbling around on building sites and making dens for a strata of juvenile society.

Our local youths made a den in the woods so they could get pissed and get high away from prying eyes, and turned it into a 'command and control' centre for local gang raids on specific victims on the estate.

People need more, and faster protection from estate gangs who vicitimise them. Not less.

One ASBO never stops a gang, and very few youths ever get banged up for breaking ASBOs.

Estate victimisation causes more people, more grief than most other crimes, but the penalties are far weaker.

Its great to rehabilitate kids and youths with better post offence regimes, but stop the victimisation, rapidly and effectively, and do it in 12 hours, not with an ASBO in 12 months. Thats a pathetic failure to confront the issue, in part because so many people write how we demonise kids, with little knowledge of what its really like out there in the suburban jungle.

How do I know you aren't aware of what its like-because you considered intervening and then didn't for reasons other than fear or good sense. Don't intervene-at best, get out of sight and dial 999. Intervene and you stand a good chance of being knifed or worse. By 12, any member of a street gang knows how to use a knife.

And for the record 'bullying' very rarely comes in 'bits'. Its usually part of a campaign of victimisation that can cause life-long emotional and psychological scars.

Take the rose-tinted glasses off Natalie. I'm amazed anyone lives is London and yet remains that naive. Maybe the suburban estates are now worse than the capital.

4/23/2006 01:51:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here, here, clanger. ASBOs can't be obtained for one minor incident - you have to show a pattern, as well as harm/alarm/distress to others not of the same household.

In Scotland ASBOs can only be sought for those over 12, and there are only 2 or 3 so far in the 18months since they came into force.

You were only speaking to the defence lawyers, not the victims so the rosy picture was a bit one-sided possibly? Recently a TV documentary included both an offender and his lawyer complaining about enforcement action being taken as he hadn't done anything to deserve it. His neighbours who had to put up with noise, disturbance at all hours of the day and night, threats from people visiting his house to buy drugs - not to mention the used needles, people shooting up in the hallway, had a different view.

There was a report in my local paper yesterday about 3 youths - 10-13 yrs old caught by the police for over 70 acts of vandalism, mainly to peoples cars. They are being reported to the Children's Panel who will address the welfare issues involved - where were the parents when this was going on - as well as the offences.

I'm not sure about England, but in Scotland any ASBO for a young person must come with a package of support to help the young person change their behaviour. Where I live there would have been a series of case conferences about such cases, voluntary measures would have been tried, but sometimes its necessary to take further action - to protect others in the community.

4/23/2006 02:26:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

There was also a case of an ASBO in my local paper - a mentally ill woman banned from a whole area that had been her home. She was hauled up in court and faced jail because she had gone to a phone box in that area to call her mother, who is looking after her three children. She just, very just, escaped jail. What purpose does an ASBO serve in a case like this? She needs mental health treatment, not the threat of jail for breaking rules that she probably doesn't understand.

I live on a "good" estate, but there are groups of problem kids. But I'm sure they are no worse than kids have ever been. We may have got worse as an adult society at dealing with them and standing up to them; we may have increasingly mixed societal groups with different expectations, but the answer to these things I believed is not JUST waving a big stick, but looking at services, supports, mental health treatment - i.e. the causes, not just trying to treat the effects.

4/24/2006 11:15:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that Natalie was criticising the existence of the asbo. The criticism Natalie seems to have been making is that it is being misued as a cheap solution to a wide variety of social ills, few of which it is suited for.

Indeed, asbos in themselves cannot address the severe social dysfunctions you highlight as justifying their existence, even if they provide a temporary relief. That would require a well-funded multi-agency approach which the govt is loath to fund.

I support the intelligent use of asbos, but they are not a band-aid for society's problems and should not be used as such.

4/24/2006 12:46:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


did you delete my comment along with yours ?

4/24/2006 01:58:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

whoops, and then it comes back. Hmmmmm.

Buy the server a tardis

4/24/2006 01:59:00 pm  
Blogger clanger said...

ASBOs are the *only* current solution for a whole raft of social problems, being a form of pre-sentencing after an indication of persistent minor offending. They need to be used much more rapidly, and they need to have proper follow-up procedures.

All laws are misused in individual cases, but that doesn't make them bad laws. Estate gangs are more of a problem today because of the rise of juvenile drug abuse, juvenile alcohol abuse, and the increased use of knives by kids. Youth culture also appears to be more violent, amoral and destructive than it was when Clanger was small (perhaps associated with photo-realistic, first-person console and PC games, music culture, and social change).

You see crime and reports of it. The victims are usually invisible (and indeed shouldn't have their suffering plastered across the newspapers). But that shouldn't mean they don't count.

We need to see some correlation between sentencing (which includes rehabilitation) and the effect a crime has, not simply the crime as a perpetrated act.

The justice system just doesn't work very well, so some crimes that are seen as 'minor' (ie. less serious than murder or rape) are pushed so far down the scale that they are treated almost as misdemeanours, regardless of the effects the crimes have on their victims.

Burglary is often seen as a minor crime, but it can destroy a family. It can lead to a long-term feeling of insecurity and loss of confidence, and in some cases mental health problems. Kids are often heavily affected by it, becoming unable to sleep. In some cases people need to move house. Moving house can cost £8000. In such a case, the burglar should pay that-not the £25 for the DVD player they nicked.

Crimes that impact upon individuals are particularly vicious and cruel. Whilst a perpetrator may have many reasons, none of these excuse such a crime. Punishment by imprisonment may help the victim feel less impotent, angry and insecure, and keeps the perpetrator away from the society they have preyed upon, making society safer.

All loss (including consequential loss from the secondary effects of crime) should be recompensed, if necessary from a central victim's fund, that the criminal then pays back to (lots of fines go unpaid, making crime an economic option).

Absolutely, once within the system, rehabilitation is vital, should involve all relevant welfare organisations, and needs to be tailored to the individual. Simply dumping people in a cell will not make a difference in their lives that will stop them reoffending.

British prisons are a disgrace. They should be safe for prisoners and drug free, offering every prisoner a path to a crime free future. They aren't.

Ultimately, society benefits from a justice system that works. Getting people who are transgressing into a system of rehabilitation at the earliest possible opportunity helps perpetrators and victims. And that includes fast ASBOs for kids.

When a kid has committed 200 individual offences, I suspect it is a lot harder to change their ways than if they get into a system of rehabilitation within 24 hours of doing something unpleasant.

The desire of the police and courts to keep kids out of a system of rehabilitation is stupid and counter-productive for victims (who continue to suffer), perpetrators (who continue to offend), the police (dragged out time after time to the same estates), and society (councils spend a fortune cleaning up after vandalism).

Any anti-social or criminal behaviour by kids is a symptom that they and their parents need a helping hand before the children go too far down a bad path.

Getting this to work makes society a safer place and benefits everyone. Earliest possible intervention is a much better approach than those currently practised.

1 year to get an ASBO is just a sick joke.

4/24/2006 03:00:00 pm  

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