The Asbo Generation

More children than adults given antisocial orders
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The Independent Online

Children are the subject of more antisocial behaviour orders than adults, leading commentators to warn that the Government is in danger of making it a "crime to become a child".

Children are the subject of more antisocial behaviour orders than adults, leading commentators to warn that the Government is in danger of making it a "crime to become a child".

Latest figures show that children have become the prime target of antisocial behaviour orders with more than half of Asbos issued between June 2000 and March 2004 against children - 1,177 against children and 1,143 against adults.

Childcare charities are concerned that some of the orders, which if breached can result in detention in a young offenders' institution, are being imposed for inappropriate reasons. One 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome was given an Asbo which stated he was not to stare over his neighbours' fence into their garden. Another 15-year-old with Tourette's syndrome, which can involve an inability to stop shouting profanities, received an Asbo banning him from swearing in public.

Children aged between 10 and 15 are now four times more likely to be the subject of an Asbo than when the orders were first used in 1999.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "In Britain today there is no question that people need protecting from crime, but we must not become an Asbo land, where it is a crime to be irritating and a crime to become a child."

Juvenile justice groups and childcare organisations say that it is too easy for the courts to impose these civil orders on children which result in criminal punishments if breached.

Neighbourhood groups and community leaders are urging police and local authorities to make greater use of Asbos in an effort to stamp out nuisance behaviour. But what worries children's groups and civil rights organisations is that this policy is criminalising misbehaviour by imposing orders against the softest targets - children.

In the past few months, boys as young as 10 have been served with Asbos.

This month Siobhan Blake became the youngest girl to be served with an Asbo. The 11-year-old was given a two-year order banning her from throwing missiles, spitting, assaulting anyone, using abusive language, damaging property and harassing people. Blake had "terrorised" residents in Hastings, East Sussex, by smashing windows and hurling eggs and stones.

The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Alvaro Gil-Robles, said this month that Britain's policy on antisocial behaviour was criminalising children. He said no juvenile under 16 should be at risk of imprisonment for breaching an antisocial behaviour order. Asbos should be "restricted to serious cases".

Civil liberties groups have raised concerns that local authorities are using the powers of the orders as a short cut to imposing criminal punishments. An Asbo is granted as a civil power, but a breach of the order is treated as an offence punishable by up to five years in prison, or a young offenders' institution.

The wide terms of the legislation mean that a magistrate can grant an Asbo by being satisfied only on a balance of probabilities that the accused's behaviour is "likely to cause alarm, harassment or distress".

Groups such as the British Institute for Brain Injured Children, a charity working with young people with behavioural difficulties, say that the Government's targeting of "families from hell" could lead to the demonising of children with Asperger's syndrome or other problems.

In the first year of the Asbo, 1999, only a few dozen applications were made to the courts. Since then, Labour has introduced laws to strengthen their use while giving councils and police more money to fund applications. In many cases, an Asbo against a child is now accompanied by a naming and shaming order.

The Children's Society has said that it is "very concerned about the Government policy to "name and shame" children who receive Asbos. Liz Lovell, a policy adviser at the society, said: "The policy is not only counter-productive, it puts children and young people at risk. We are also opposed to the proposed extension of this policy in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill.

"Although an Asbo is a civil order, breaching it is a criminal offence, the penalty for which can be imprisonment. Asbos were not designed with children in mind."

In the six years since the first Asbos were granted, evidence is emerging that they no longer have a deterrent impact on antisocial behaviour. Children are more likely to breach an order - resulting in a criminal record - than an adult, figures show.

Liberty has told the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs that such an "indiscriminate and excessive" use of the legislation is "undermining any benefit they might bring". Ms Chakrabarti said: "We are aware of anecdotal evidence of Asbos being treated as a badge of honour. If that is so, then what must be the principal purpose of Asbos, deterrence from antisocial behaviour, is undermined. Displacement of aggressive youths from one estate to a neighbouring one does not address the cause of their behaviour."

Earlier this year, the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that the Government's Asbo policy was about right.

A spokesman for the Home Office said: "Asbos are about the protection of the community. They are civil orders, not criminal. As long as a young person abides by the order, there are no further consequences and they will not get a criminal record.

"Asbos are not the first stop on the line. There have usually been a range of interventions to attempt to modify behaviour.

"There's no evidence that Asbos are leading to an increase in youth custody. Individual support orders and parent orders are used to help modify youngsters' antisocial behaviour when they are given an Asbo."

The spokeswoman added: "Breaching an Asbo is a serious offence and it's important for the confidence of the community that breaches are acted upon."

The Home Office was conducting research on the impact of Asbos on the individual and the community, the spokeswoman said, although it was important to understand that Asbos were a "relatively new tool".

Asbo facts

* Of those who breached Asbos in 2004, 46 per cent were given custodial sentences

* Forty-two per cent of all Asbos were breached up to December 2003, compared to 36 per cent for the period up to December 2002

* A Mori poll this month found that while 89 per cent of people support Asbos, only 39 per cent feel they are effective

* The British Institute for Brain-Injured Children says at least five children with autism and other brain disorders have been given Asbos

Eoghan Williams