Comment: Asbo debate misses bigger picture

Last week, the papers were full of the murder of army cadet Joseph Lappin. It was a tale that suggested there is something very wrong with the way we tackle antisocial behaviour in Britain. Despite having breached sanctions more than 40 times, including antisocial behavior orders (Asbos) and supervision orders, his killer James Moore was never sent to jail – and was free to kill Joseph, an innocent bystander, outside a Liverpool youth centre in October 2008. Although the particular consequences of the criminal justice system’s failures were exceptional in this instance, our research suggests that the case is worryingly indicative of wider, systemic failings.

By Max Chambers

Our report, A State of Disorder, published this week, reveals that between 2002 and 2007 just 14 people were imprisoned for breach of an Asbo. The government officially claims that more than half of those who breach their Asbo are imprisoned – but in reality they are actually being locked up for other criminal offences at the same time. The new figures, released to us by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, expose the myth that Asbos are being used as a stand-alone, preventative tool to protect the public from repeat and serious antisocial behaviour. In reality, any sanction for breaching an Asbo is merely an addendum to an already blossoming criminal career.

The scale of antisocial behaviour is such that the ongoing national debate about Asbos (which are only used for a tiny hardcore of offenders) often misses the bigger picture – especially the needs of victims. One of the most prevalent problems for them is persuading local agencies to take antisocial behaviour seriously. As the home secretary has admitted, “too many people who try to bring antisocial behaviour to the attention of the authorities find themselves trapped in a never-ending circle of phone calls – they phone the police, who tell them to phone the housing people, who tell them to phone social services, who tell them they need to talk to the police”. What victims of persistent antisocial behaviour want when they report it is simply for the behaviour to stop and for them to be dealt with by the council and/or police in a satisfactory way. But there is, for instance, no measure of victim satisfaction with the action taken by local agencies, and no indication of the success rate of cases. Last year, the government did consider creating a new national indicator which would measure victims’ satisfaction with the way the police and council dealt with antisocial behaviour. But the measure was inexplicably dropped.

In addition to a new focus on victims, we need radical police reform to ensure that local concerns are taken seriously. First, we need the police to be more accountable to local communities
– through the introduction of directly-elected local police commissioners. Proper local accountability would drive a radical change in policing culture, making sure that community concerns (especially anti-social behaviour) are prioritised. They would also chair the local Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership, driving multi-agency working and ensuring a coordinated approach is taken.

This must go hand in hand with comprehensive steps to free the police from the performance management regime which has prevented them from doing those unseen things – mediating, problem-solving, prevention, protection, setting community standards – that real community policing should be all about. One recent example highlighted in a government review told the story of a police officer who reduced crime and disorder on one estate by 90% over six months through a problem-solving approach. His only reward was criticism for not meeting personal arrest targets. This kind of performance management must be stripped away if we are ever to make an impact on a problem which blights so many of our most deprived communities.

Max Chambers is a Research Fellow in Policy Exchange’s Crime and Justice Unit

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