As you rightly note (“What’s wrong with ASBOs?”, Solidarity 3, 74), the Anti-social Behaviour Act has had some vile consequences. While working in a night shelter I was appalled by the way that the act is being used to persecute the homeless.
The act gives police the power to disperse any group of more than two people within any area in which they believe “that anti-social behaviour is a significant and persistent problem”. This can include public parks. I have repeatedly seen people arrested and prosecuted for doing no more than sitting quietly on a bench. Their crime? That they were a group of three, and objected to being told they couldn’t sit on common land.
Yet again, New Labour is trying to treat the symptom rather than the cause, and is doing so by victimising those most in need of support. People in vulnerable or temporary housing — the shelter I worked in was only open from 7 pm until 9.30 am — often do not have any chance to “go home” during the day. Now the police have the power severely to restrict their freedom of movement and of assembly.
ASBOs can be even more insidious. As you note, they are often used to criminalise people for non-criminal offences. For example, although prostitution is not a criminal offence, breaching an ASBO is. The legislation has been used to punish the very people we should be helping. “Crimes” can be defined by a magistrate, who effectively becomes the lawmaker. Because ASBOs are limited to a particular location, they are often used to force “troublemakers” to move to another city, making it even more difficult to settle into a more stable life.
Once again, Blair’s government has shown itself unwilling to stand up for the most disadvantaged, pandering to middle-class ideas of what constitutes “anti-social behaviour” and criminalising those whose lifestyles do not conform. Once again, there is no attempt to deal with the underlying causes of homelessness and drug-dependence. Once again, there is insufficient help for victims of abuse and the mentally ill.
Tough on crime? Perhaps, but remember that many of the “offences” which are punished by ASBOs are not even criminal. Tough on the causes of crime? If only.
Josh Robinson, Cambridge