The dangers of criminalising children

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When the Government unveiled its "antisocial behaviour orders" scheme in 1999, there was no suggestion that its primary targets would be children. Yet that has been precisely the effect. The latest figures from the Government show that more than half of the 4,000 Asbos imposed in the past six years were for those aged 18 or younger. That should be cause for substantial concern.

When the Government unveiled its "antisocial behaviour orders" scheme in 1999, there was no suggestion that its primary targets would be children. Yet that has been precisely the effect. The latest figures from the Government show that more than half of the 4,000 Asbos imposed in the past six years were for those aged 18 or younger. That should be cause for substantial concern.

The intention behind Asbos was not an unworthy one. They were supposed to provide communities and police forces with a means of clamping down on behaviour that constituted a real nuisance and menace to residents. The Government recognised that antisocial behaviour was a growing blight in many run-down housing estates. Some will argue that since children are often the greatest offenders when it comes to antisocial behaviour it is only natural they are disproportionately targeted.

But Asbos were never designed with children in mind. The statistics show that children are far more likely to breach an Asbo than adults. This has serious implications, because breach results in criminal punishment. This is dragging a significant number of individuals into the criminal justice system at an early age. Many suffer from learning difficulties. And the public "naming and shaming" policy that accompanies some court orders reinforces the "criminalising" process. This has the potential to store up many problems - both for the children in question and society as a whole.

The reflex to slap Asbos on unruly children is related to that recent bout of hysteria about the prevalence of kids wearing "hoodies" in shopping centres. And a better, if less politically attractive, approach in both instances would be to give young people decent leisure facilities and places to go out of school hours.

It is increasingly clear that there are serious flaws with the whole concept of the Asbo. Aside from their disproportionate targeting of children, they raise concerns about due process and civil liberties. As a court order, they can be imposed on a relaxed standard of proof - yet they can still lead to a jail sentence. They are, in a sense, a means by which the police can bypass the traditional machinery of the criminal justice system.

Asbos are seen by the police as a quick fix. And the courts are giving them out too freely and in inappropriate circumstances. But perhaps the greatest blame belongs to the Government for pushing their use so strenuously and assuming that the more Asbos are imposed, the greater inroads are being made into the problem of antisocial behaviour. The evidence increasingly suggests that Asbos have become a way for those in positions of power to avoid their deeper responsibilities.

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