ASBOs and Animalisation

Recently, I was travelling my usual route to work passing through a small village in Northamptonshire. Just before leaving the village I saw a father and son standing on the pavement, with the father with his arm around his son’s shoulders. I was initially struck by the unusualness of the situation and also thought how good it was to see a father bonding with his son with an open display of affection. As I drove past I noticed two things – one the happy smile on the father’s face, second the look of horror and disdain on the son’s face. The latter, I am sure, was connected with the fact that surrounding these two was a group of lively young people waiting for a bus.

This momentary observation then led me to think what reaction this boy was likely to receive from his peers when he arrived at school. It also reminded me of when I was studying for my ‘A’ levels in Middlesbrough and how I used to tell my Mum to park the Volvo a half a mile away to avoid my embarrassment.

I may have easily misread the situation and perhaps the young man was merely mad because he had let his cereal go soggy – who knows? The day that I saw the pair was the day that commentators were discussing two reports one from the Youth Justice Board1 and one from the Institute of Public Policy Research2.

In reading the summaries of both reports I as struck by the fact that perhaps our whole approach to young people is wrong – we are too quick to blame and castigate every person between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one as a delinquent, blaming them for the type of clothing they wear or the amount they drink.

This approach ignores the fact that we have all been young once and we have all done things that we may regret, and yet the vast majority of us grow up to be fine. Children, at times, may make mistakes and will have to learn by their mistakes, but part of the role of being a parent is not merely to punish; we also need to help children make sense of the world and help them make appropriate decisions.

Although this may sound like middle class dribble, the report from the Youth Justice Board (2006) clearly shows that the majority of the study sample “…tended to be from a highly disadvantaged group, characterised by:

  • family breakdown and inconsistent supervision or boundary setting from carers
  • educational difficulty and under-achievement
  • previous abuse, bereavement and loss
  • residence in high-crime neighbourhoods, with relatively few age-appropriate facilities”

I continue to fail to see how slapping an ASBO on somebody without addressing some of the underlying issues is going to sort anything out. In talking about this issue with a group of students, one student challenged my assumptions and said I was not one of the people living in a community dominated by anti-social behaviour. I had to agree but then pointed out that merely bringing more and more people into the juvenile justice system was not an answer as it simply criminalised behaviour and did not, to coin a phrase, get at the “causes of crime”.

The recently published IPPR report states, “Until now, analysis has largely failed to grasp how the experience of youth in Britain has changed and why this has fuelled public disquiet”. In their analysis the authors present an interesting finding “…that British children spend more time in the company of peers, and less time with adults and parents, than young people in culturally similar countries”.

The report is careful not to criticise lone parents and goes onto emphasise traditional policies as a solution with increased investment in child care and parenting classes. Although these policies may in part work, I am beginning to feel that it is yet another political idea to be imposed from above. What is interesting about the report on the ASBOS is that the most young people interviewed appear to accept that they need to be “dealt with”; it is just the use of the ASBO that is the problem. It seems to be using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.

I remember in the early 1980s reading Jimmy Boyle’s autobiography A Sense of Freedom about his life of violence and crime which extended into prison where, to use his words, he was “…animalised after seven year of solitary confinement”, until he was moved to the Barlinnie Special Unit, where he discovered art.

In that Unit he was treated differently, was being treated as a human being and using art which “… was like a creative damn bursting inside me. In that one moment I had crossed over a threshold”.3 Although this is perhaps a rather dramatic analogy, it makes the point that merely punishing a person is not necessarily going to achieve anything. They need to be involved and helped to take control of their life.

In my view we need to go back to what the Government says it wants to do which is for communities to find solutions for their own problems. In order to find these solutions we need to talk to the very people causing the problems and involve them in the process of finding solutions. Adopting a community-based outreach model may be one of the solutions, alongside other initiatives like parenting classes. Using ASBOS as a solution for the problems of our young people is not the answer; it simply criminalises behaviour and to borrow one of Jimmy Boyle’s words ‘animalises’ people which will leave us with a legacy of disenfranchised adults who, in turn, have difficulties in relating to their children.

1 Youth Justice Board (2006) Anti-Social Behaviour Orders
2 Julia Margo and Mike Dixon with Nick Pearce and Howard Reed (2006) Freedom’s Orphans: Raising youth in a changing world Institute of Public Policy Research
3 See: Community Arts

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