‘Asbo-mania’: the regulation and criminalisation of children and young people
In 1997 I was invited to a public meeting called to discuss crime, particularly involving young people, in Skelmersdale New Town. It was part of a rushed ‘consultation process’ set up by the recently elected New Labour government to discuss the contents of the proposed Crime and Disorder Bill. I went with Paul Prescott, an outreach youth worker whom I had known for years. The meeting was chaired by a former academic colleague, the then MP for West Lancashire. No children or young people had been invited. The evening very quickly turned into an unrelenting attack on ‘kids’, ‘yobs’ and ‘thugs’. Paul and I raised the problems and issues faced by children and young people in the community, including the easy availability of drugs and alcohol and police harassment. We were shouted down and roundly condemned as ‘do-gooders’. My attempt to discuss the mediainfused public outcry around children and young people was mocked. A month later I addressed the annual meeting of North-West Emergency Social Workers on ‘current developments in youth justice’. Only one person in the room knew of the Crime and Disorder Bill. I discussed its content, particularly focusing on the punitive potential of curfews, parenting orders and antisocial behaviour orders. There was disbelief among participants and a refusal by some to accept that what appeared to be welfare-oriented, diversionary measures could be interpreted as netwidening and criminalising. As the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act was introduced I initiated
research focusing particularly on the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders. Working together, Julie Read and I witnessed the pressures experienced by local authority ofﬁcers to issue ASBOs, the lack of protection afforded by the courts and the ‘naming and shaming’ of children by the media. Subsequent qualitative research into early intervention programmes in a north-western town demonstrated clearly how a criminal justice ethos remained at the heart of preventive and supposedly restorative interventions. Yet the ‘antisocial behaviour’ bandwagon rolled on, gaining momentum and eventually fusing into the Labour government’s ‘respect agenda’.