A generation of troubled youngsters 'criminalised'

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The Independent Online

Daisy is 17 years old, profoundly deaf and has been in prison for more than a month. Her crime was spitting in public, an offence which earned her an anti-social behaviour order - or Asbo - and subsequently a jail term.

Daisy is 17 years old, profoundly deaf and has been in prison for more than a month. Her crime was spitting in public, an offence which earned her an anti-social behaviour order - or Asbo - and subsequently a jail term.

The teenager is one of nearly 1,000 young people aged from 10 to 20 who have been punished with Asbos over the past year. There are no exact figures, but as many as one in three children in youth jails are there for breaching an Asbo.

Lawyers, prison reformers and civil liberties groups now say the Government's anti-yob crusade is actually criminalising a generation of troubled youngsters and that Britain's jails are being filled by young people in breach of Asbos.

But supporters of the reforms point to the huge successes brought about by the Asbo revolution, which they say has transformed the no-go zones that were blighted by "yob culture".

Magistrates can issue an Asbo for any behaviour which causes "harassment, alarm or distress", but the terms of the order can vary widely. Asbos are civil penalties, but if the orders are breached the offender can face up to five years in prison.

Take the example of Camden in London, one of the Asbo hotspots which has issued 100 orders, most in just two years in a clampdown on drug addicts and street drinking. Silla Carron, who chairs the Clarence Way tenants' association in Camden, said an Asbo rid the estate of an addict who was using the estate's stairwells to use drugs after which he would defecate and vomit.

"It was very intimidating," she said. "One elderly tenant was in tears because she wanted to go out and get some milk but she couldn't because she was so scared.

"Because of Asbos, where we had nothing we've now got something. It's about the community standing up."

Last week the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, trumpeted the use of Asbos while announcing 50 communities across Britain which will get more help to tackle anti-social behaviour, including new anti-social behaviour response courts, plus extra funding.

But campaigners fear Asbos are being pushed too far. Take Daisy's case. She ended up in prison because she ignored an order not to spit in public. Her instinctive response, when distressed, is to spit.

Her identity is not being revealed for legal reasons but the Howard League, which campaigns for penal reform, will use her case in cautioning MPs against a widespread use of Asbos.

A total of 3,069 Asbos have been handed out in England and Wales since they were introduced five years ago, 2,600 of these in the past year alone.

The case against Asbos: 'I can't understand why they singled my son out'

Aneeze Williamson is only 11, but has a list of convictions as long as your arm - 13 in all since the age of 10. Earlier this month Aneeze, who lives on an estate in Shipley, West Yorkshire, became one of the youngest people in Britain to be given an Asbo. His neighbours have accused him of arson, throwing bricks through their windows and breaking into their homes. He is no longer allowed to leave his home unaccompanied by an adult.

But his mother, Debbie Williamson, believes he has been failed by the system. Excluded from every school he's been to, Aneeze cannot read or write and has roamed the streets for years.

"I can't understand why they've singled him out," she said. "He's the youngest and everything he's done has been part of a gang. Aneeze needs help, I need help. He would be better off even in a proper prison, because there he would get the help he really needs, like learning to read and write."

A spokesman for the Shipley Community Housing Trust, which runs the estate, said: "Residents are pleased the Asbo has been served. We took this action on behalf of tenants who have suffered as the result of this young man's behaviour. Asbos help us make sure our tenants enjoy their homes and neighbourhood peacefully."

The case for Asbos: 'We are under siege'

Gangs of youths aged between 15 and 20 have made life a misery for the residents of John Street in Rochester, Kent, for the past three months. The gang, which can number 40, has tried to burn down the pub, beaten and robbed shopkeepers, mugged pensioners and terrorised children, the residents say.

"We want Asbos. There's a lot of kids who live here who daren't go out. We are under siege," said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fears of reprisals. "I will not go out to the shops on my own, even in the day, because these kids are so intimidating. When they are taking drugs they don't care. A lot of people are very frightened. If the elderly want to go to the shops they go in the mornings in twos and threes. Not in the afternoon."

Residents believe waiting for gang members to face prosecution is taking too long and see Asbos as a quicker solution.