A rose by any other name
Some new tools for fighting yobs, and fresh questions
THE death in 2007 of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her disabled daughter after years of complaining fruitlessly to the police about harassment by local thugs, remains the prism through which many Britons view anti-social behaviour. So it is worth asking whether the proposals for combating it that were trotted out by the Home Office on May 22nd would have changed the women's fate. The Leicestershire police had all the tools they needed then to intervene, but did not do so; now they will have to. But the new measures perpetuate some past mistakes, and may introduce others.
The government intends to do away with the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). An invention of the previous Labour government, ASBOs were dished out for a range of offences, from singing to dealing drugs. Offenders could be ordered to stay away from places or to desist from swearing, drinking, urinating al fresco and so on. With other measures against petty thuggery, ASBOs seem to have had some effect: the police recorded 3.2m anti-social incidents in 2010-11, down from 3.9m in the year the Pilkingtons died, and people's perception of a serious problem in their area was the lowest in a decade.
But many—among them Frank Field, a member of the government when ASBOs were first debated in 1997-98— worried that they fast-tracked relatively mild offenders into the criminal-justice system. Violating one was a criminal offence—yet of the more than 20,000 issued in England and Wales during the decade to 2010, 57% were breached, 42% more than once. Over half of the breachers went to prison.
In addition to reducing victimisation, especially of the vulnerable, the coalition government wants to devolve responsibility for local misconduct to local communities. A new “community trigger” will be piloted in three places, forcing the police and other agencies to respond when there are enough complaints about someone or something (in Manchester it will be when one person complains three times or five people once). From November elected Police and Crime Commissioners are expected to keep police noses to that grindstone. And two new powers will replace ASBOs and five related civil orders.
The Crime Prevention Injunction (CPI), designed to intervene early, will be faster and easier to get than an ASBO. It will contain the same sorts of prohibitions but also positive requirements, such as undergoing treatment for drugs. Breaching it will be a civil rather than a criminal offence, though a stretch in prison can result. The Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO) is for hard-core troublemakers who also dabble in outright crime. Like the CPI, it can contain a mixture of restrictions and requirements. Violating it is to be a criminal offence.
The new measures will undoubtedly focus police minds on anti-social behaviour in a way that nothing yet has quite done. But there are worries. CBOs perpetuate the ASBO trick of creating under civil law a criminal offence applicable to one person. “It strikes me as a risky strategy to abandon the principle of equality before the criminal law and invent tailor-made offences in this way,” says Mike Hough of Birkbeck College London. Isabella Sankey of Liberty, a pressure group, fears the CPI could be worse than the ASBO, as the standard of proof will be lower and the test of anti-social behaviour broader.
The question for Martin Innes of Cardiff University's policing programme is whether any such instruments are especially effective. It has been impossible to establish a statistical match between the use of ASBOs and falls in anti-social behaviour, he says. What seems to work is “feet on the street”—getting someone in authority to the scene to tell the offender to stop it—as well as focusing on victims rather than suspects and analysing data to predict risk patterns. In short, as so often, using existing powers more intelligently.