Anti Social behaviour: Jack straw's way ... with A COURT ORDER
Sunday 05 September 1999
The two 17-year-olds last week became the first juveniles dealt with under powers introduced by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to punish behaviour likely to cause "harassment, alarm or distress". They are banned for two years from Highgate Street and Hellsby Street, and may be jailed for up to five years if caught spitting, urinating or causing criminal damage anywhere in Liverpool.
Most residents in the Chatsworth area tell stories which confirm impressions of the boys' behaviour, captured by a covert camcorder and shown in court. A mother said she stopped her eight-year-old son playing outside because she feared he would be hurt by the boys. Another said they swore at passers- by, glared through windows, and casually vandalised open space on Hellsby Street.
Gerard Murdern, head of Liverpool's pioneering anti-social behaviour unit, said the orders were a triumph for people in fear of disorder. The council may now seek further exclusion zones or curfews for up to eight of 60 people being investigated by the team of social workers, education officers and police.
The exclusion orders are only the latest in an armoury of devices designed to deal with such delinquent behaviour. More than 130 other cases have been dealt with by mediation, court injunctions or eviction from council properties since the unit was established two years ago. "The orders against these two have been misinterpreted as a last resort," Mr Murdern said. "But eviction is usually the last resort."
Sometimes the mere threat of eviction is enough. "We filmed a gang in Speke threatening people, trashing empty houses and kicking cars," Mr Murdern said. "Then we invited their parents to a showing of the video, and told them they faced eviction. Anti-social behaviour stopped."
But the strategy has critics - the boys' parents, their lawyer, and even some Chatsworth residents. The parents' objection is that the powers are formidable, perhaps excessive, and aimed erratically. Neither of the excluded youths, who live outside the exclusion zone, their families say, was a truant. Both are immature, but found jobs after leaving school with GCSEs. They have not been in trouble with the police, their families are unknown to social services, and neighbours are petitioning to get the orders quashed.
"The first I knew my son was in trouble," said a mother of one of the boys, "was when a man came to the door, handed me an envelope and said: 'See you in court'. If we'd received a complaint about him, he would have been barred from going out."
The lawyer's objection is to the quality of the evidence. Under Jack Straw's new law, anti-social behaviour orders can be imposed on a balance of probabilities, not proof beyond reasonable doubt.
The 20 minutes of video evidence against the youths is ambiguous. In the video one boy urinates in a side street. They throw stones at a building site. Mostly they sit sharing a cigarette. They are forbidden to smoke at home. The most compelling footage shows them jumping on a wrecked car that four younger children had set alight.
That was enough. "We had to concede that jumping on the car was anti- social behaviour," David Woods, the youths' solicitor, said. He believes Mr Straw's powers give scope for unfair convictions, based on anonymous hearsay and inconclusive videos shot by private investigators. "Now two boys of previous good behaviour could go to prison for behaviour that's not even a criminal offence."
Local people have another reservation: whether the right people have been targeted. The Chatsworth area has more than its fair share of "neighbours from hell", and many local residents support Jack Straw's new measures - in theory at least.
"The trouble is the two they got weren't the ringleaders," a man on Highgate Street said, gesturing to the convicted youths' four friends who still hung around the area with an intimidating air. "You take two off the street, and there are others substituting. It's the parents who should be in the dock. If you're in bed all day, you don't care if your kids aren't in school."
Residents have petitioned the authorities, without success, for the eviction of one violent family which has 17 children. "The ones I'm frightened of weren't in court; they've just walked by," a pensioner said. Yet back at Liverpool's anti-social behaviour unit, Mr Murdern is confident that Jack Straw's new scheme can produce results. "This first case took five months because we attempted mediation first. In future, it could be weeks, not months."
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