Not Saussure

January 14, 2007

Super-ASBOs — for what?

Filed under: Blair, civil liberties, Law — notsaussure @ 6:58 pm

I think Tony Blair must be getting de-mob happy. How else is one to explain this?

TONY BLAIR is to mount a final assault on Britain’s thug culture by introducing restrictions that will curb potential yobs’ movements even before they have committed an offence.

After attempting to tackle antisocial behaviour, he is proposing to introduce a “violent offender order” (Voo) targeted at those whom police believe are likely to commit violence.

These new “super-Asbos” will be aimed not only at people who have a history of violent behaviour or who have just left prison but also those who may not yet have committed an offence.

The report continues,

The Voos are designed to be a “preventative measure”, according to the Home Office paper. “It would mean that, where an individual was known to be dangerous but had not committed a specific qualifying offence, restrictions could still be placed on their behaviour,” it says.

Well, hold on just a minute. The orders are apparently aimed not only at people who have a history of violent behaviour or who have just left prison. That’s as well, since if they were they’d be completely redundant. Someone who’s just left prison will have been released not unconditionally but subject to licence, which means that, until the full term of the sentence has expired, he’s subject to supervision by the probation service and the police anyway, and subject to recall if he doesn’t comply with the terms of his licence.

He may also be served with an ABSO when he’s sentenced, as, of course, may be anyone else whose behaviour gives cause for concern, whether he’s committed a criminal offence or not. Ah, but there’s a difference, you see:

Unlike Asbos, which solely cover antisocial behaviour, Voos would be targeted at thugs who would be placed on the violent and sex offender register, a national database for intelligence on people deemed to be a serious risk to the public.

ASBOs do indeed ‘solely cover antisocial behaviour.’ To be precise, they may be issued when a court is persuaded to the standard of civil proof — that is, on the balance of probabilities rather than to the standard of criminal proof —

    (a) that the person has acted, since the commencement date, in an anti-social manner, that is to say, in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself; and
    (b) that such an order is necessary to protect persons in the local government area in which the harassment, alarm or distress was caused or was likely to be caused from further anti-social acts by him;

which covers, as they say, a multitude of sins, some of them pretty venal.

The idea that some 300 to 450 people a year are such dangers to society that they need restrictions placed on them, restrictions which will last for at least two years, include measures to

ban potential trouble-makers from certain areas or mixing with certain people, alert police when they move house and possibly force them to live in a named hostel, give details of vehicles they own and impose a curfew on them.

and carry a penalty of up to five years imprisonment for breaking them, but have nevertheless managed to lead reasonably blameless lives so far, having failed either to trouble the courts to any great extent or to have given the authorities sufficient cause concern to apply for an ASBO against them, seems utterly bizarre.

On what grounds, then, are these ‘super-ASBOs’ to be issued?

The [Home Office] paper identifies a series of “risk factors” that could lead to a person being targeted for the new order. These include a person’s formative years and upbringing, “cognitive deficiencies”, “entrenched pro-criminal or antisocial attitudes,” “a history of substance abuse or mental health issues”.

Factors could also include a person’s domestic situation or relationship with their partner or family, as well as more obvious signs such as “possession of paraphernalia related to violent offending (eg, balaclava, baseball bat), or extremist material”.

While it’s easy to visualise the sort of person they have in mind, it’s not quite so easy to imagine how this chap has managed to get so far in his potentially criminal career without, for example, committing any sort of public order offences — certainly enough to bring him to the notice of the courts if the police choose to prosecute rather than issue a Fixed Penalty Notice (PND), which seems to be their, and the goverment’s, preferred solution in many cases.

In fact, I’d argue that his comparatively blameless record thus far was a pretty good reason to ignore all these ‘risk factors’ to do with his ‘formative years and upbringing’ and, God help us, his ‘entrenched pro-criminal or antisocial attitudes’ and to conclude that, on the balance of probabilities, appearances seem to be deceptive, that he’s not much of problem and that the measures proposed against him are manifestly excessive.

In practical terms, I don’t see how this is going to work. The courts are going to raise exactly the objections I’ve just made; how on earth can you say, particularly given the wide — many would say too-wide — powers the government’s created to deal with ‘anti-social behaviour’, that someone who’s not actually been convicted of anything nor has yet made sufficient a nuisance of himself even to merit an ASBO, is such a danger to the rest of us that he needs one of these orders taking out against him?

Possibly it’s just to keep of us involved in the criminal justice system in work, but the courts really do like to have some evidence of wrong-doing brought before them; they’re not in the business of taking action against people on spec of they might do.

The Sunday Times suggests that these measures

will be seen as a last-ditch attempt by Blair to rescue his legacy on law and order before he quits No 10 in the summer. Despite the prime minister’s boast that overall crime has been falling for the past decade, violent crime is rising.

and, for once, their speculation may be justified (I always distrust newspapers when they say something ‘will be seen as’ something rather than that ‘it is,’ particularly when they don’t specify by whom it will thus be seen). We’ve had endless initiatives — which, as I recall, started with Jack Straw being vexed by squeegee merchants while still in opposition — aimed at dealing with the unfortunate fact that criminals will insist on breaking the law. In an attempt to deal with this regrettable habit of theirs, the government seems to have taken the view — not consciously, of course — that the thing to do is to pass more laws to stop them from breaking the ones that already exist.

To no one’s great surprise — certainly not to mine — this doesn’t actually work too well. So what do we have now? Proposals for laws against looking as if you’re going to break the law. As I’ve said before, I’m sceptical of government attempts to abolish sin, much as we’d like them to (so long as it’s not our sins they’re talking about, of course). Look at how long it’s taken, and how much effort was needed, to alter attitudes to one particular form of obviously dangerous and anti-social behaviour, drunk driving (to which attitudes have certainly changed massively over the last 30 or 40 years; I can remember when it used to be considered a bit of a joke). That should give us a measure of how difficult it is to change behaviour rather than deal with, and punish, the consequences of it.

Proposing more and more draconian measures, and messing about more and more not only with the burden and standard of proof but even the requirement that a crime be committed in the first place, in order to deal with public fears about — much of the time — the facts that young men, when they’re in a group and have had too much to drink, tend to behave badly late at night, primarily towards each other, or that drug addicts will, regardless of the law, commit burglaries and street robberies to fund their addictions — is no solution to anything. It perhaps placates the red-tops for a while, until it doesn’t work and they demand yet more draconian measures, and it gives the government the opportunity to jeer at their opponents for being ‘soft on crime’ if they point out how pointless and corrupting of the legal system such measures are.

Such initiatives are often said by the commentators to be an attempt to appeal to ‘middle England’. Well, if I look at my situation objectively, I’m pretty much ‘middle-England’ — late-middle-aged, middle-class professional and so forth, and I’m rapidly turning into ‘disgusted of middle-England’ — disgusted by such fatuous and illiberal proposals.

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  1. This will be remembered as the week that the Blairite Government crossed the line into self-parody.


    Comment by IanWhickham — January 14, 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  2. Violent

    Comment by james higham — January 15, 2007 @ 8:09 pm

  3. Oh,very good, James. I like that.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 15, 2007 @ 8:30 pm

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