Antisocial behaviour orders are widely seen as "badges of honour" by offending teenagers, their parents and even some criminal justice professionals, and fail in nearly half of all cases, according to an officially commissioned study published today.
The research for the government's Youth Justice Board says many of those involved in tackling youth offending, including magistrates, have serious reservations about their effectiveness and question how much they change the behaviour of teenage tearaways.More than 7,300 individual Asbos have been issued since they were introduced in 1999 as a flagship part of Tony Blair's drive against antisocial behaviour and disorder but the new study says that 49% of under-18s had been returned to court for failing to comply with their order, with the majority "breaching" it on more than one occasion.
The study, which is the first independent evaluation of Asbos since their introduction, concludes that those working in local youth offending teams and some magistrates regard the high level of non-compliance as a key indicator that the orders are not only ineffective, but that they also increase the long-term risk of the teenager being jailed.
Asbos are imposed for a term of between two and five years and most commonly include bans on causing harassment, alarm or distress, exclusion zones from particular places or parts of town, and bans on mixing with other named individuals.
The research, which was carried out by the Policy Research Bureau and Nacro, the crime reduction charity, looked in detail at 137 cases and found that many young people had no clear understanding of the detailed restrictions in their orders and it was not uncommon for them to openly flout those which placed the greatest curbs on their lifestyles.
Parents and some professionals, including magistrates, commonly argued that Asbos functioned as a "badge of honour", and referred to them as a "diploma" rather than addressing the causes of bad behaviour.
One mother of three children issued with orders told the researchers: "Some of the friends are left out now because they're not on an Asbo. I think they all want one. I know a boy that's hellbent on getting an Asbo because he feels left out."
A magistrate is quoted as saying that the orders were "being used as 'badge of honour' ... and they are going to carry that label with them for a long time".
Some of the teenagers were frank about what they had been up to. Joel, 13, described his antisocial behaviour as "terrorising people and running them out of our area". It also involved "hanging about on street corners, being normal teenagers, which is a stupid charge. Being cheeky to people as they walk past. Throwing water bombs, answering back, swearing, all that kind of thing. It's harassment".
One police officer said that the geographical exclusion zones were often unworkable: "You are inviting little Johnnie Smith to ... run over the imaginary line then run away from the police. You've actually invented a game for the kids to play."
Some judges were concerned that Asbos were being overused because a lower level of evidence than a full criminal court order was needed for their introduction. Further concerns have also been raised that too many youngsters who breached Asbos are being jailed, but the study shows that of the 18 young people sentenced for breaching orders only one was sent to prison solely for non-compliance. The others were imprisoned for separate crimes.
The study, however, did confirm that Asbos were being used disproportionately against ethnic minority groups. More than 20% of those given an Asbo were black or Asian - two and half times more than their representation in the general population.
Professor Rod Morgan, the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said the study showed that Asbos had to be used correctly and only as a last resort: "Asbos can, and do, work incredibly well but they need to be used correctly and that means exhausting every preventative measure in the community first, and ensuring that youth offending teams are not excluded from the process."
Paul Cavadino of Nacro said that in too many areas Asbos were being used as an early option before other approaches were tried and all too often unrealistic conditions were imposed on young people that were bound to be broken.