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Tuesday, 30 January, 2001, 00:00 GMT
Anti-yob measures divide voters

by BBC News Online's Peter Gould

Voters are split down the middle over some of the powers being sought by the government as part of its "zero tolerance" approach to yob culture, an opinion poll for BBC News Online suggests.

The measures are contained in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which was last night given its second reading in the House of Commons.

With law and order expected to be a big election issue, the government has decided to target rowdy behaviour on the streets.

It usually involves young people, and is frequently fuelled by alcohol. It often ends in violence.

The Bill would allow restrictions on drinking in some public places, and provide new powers for the police to shut down disorderly pubs and bars.

In one of the more controversial moves, local curfews could be imposed in particular areas, to make sure youngsters under the age of 16 are home by 9pm.

In a telephone poll for BBC News Online, ICM questioned one thousand people of all ages and social groups, across England, Scotland and Wales.

They were asked if they thought curfews were an effective way of keeping youngsters off the streets and out of trouble.

Just over half, 51%, said they did, but a significant number, 45%, said they would prefer a different approach.

Women were generally more in favour of curfews than men, and the over-65s were most enthusiastic about the benefits of curfews.

The proposal has already drawn a protest from the civil rights groups Justice, which says it is prepared to challenge the curfews in court.

The National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) warns that it could deprive young people of the opportunity to take part in activities such as sport and music.

"Curfews like this are almost impossible to police," says the head of Nacro's youth crime section, Chris Stanley.

"It's unfair because it will penalise law-abiding young who legitimately can be allowed on the streets, and who will have to stay at home."

American experience

Research in the United States, for the Justice Policy Institute, has also called into question the effectiveness of teenage curfews, widely used during school hours in an effort to reduce truancy.

A study of such curfews in California concluded that they had little impact on levels of juvenile crime.

Here, if the government's Bill becomes law, the police will also have the power to issue fixed-penalty fines for such offences as being drunk and disorderly, and abusive or threatening behaviour.

But the BBC News Online poll shows that voters are fairly evenly split on this method of dealing with rowdy behaviour.

Forty-seven per cent thought on-the-spot fines would be effective, but 49% disagreed.

Women were more enthusiastic than men about this measure, but it seems that many voters are yet to be convinced.

The ICM poll also questioned people about the use of electronic tagging as a sentencing option.

Courts can now impose a curfew on offenders, rather than sending them to prison. And some prisoners are now released early from jail, to complete their sentences at home.

In both cases, electronic monitoring of their tags ensures they do not venture out at night.

Questioned about this use of tagging for non-violent offenders, 64% said they approved of the policy. By contrast, 27% felt that offenders should be sent to prison, or should remain in prison.

Tagging technology has now advanced to the point where it is theoretically possible to constantly monitor the movements of certain offenders, for example those convicted of sex crimes or domestic violence.

The poll asked voters if they would agreed with tagging being used to keep track of persistent offenders, even those not presently charged with an offence.

Almost two-thirds, 65%, said they would approve of electronic monitoring in such cases.

That may not be on the agenda yet. But other developments in the use of tagging are being actively explored.

In stalking cases, an "exclusion zone" can be created around the home of a victim. If a tagged offender gets too close, he triggers an alarm.

And in another development, "voice verification" software will enable the exact location of an offender to be checked at any time by a simple telephone call.

ICM Research interviewed a random selection of 1000 adults aged 18+ by telephone between 26-28 January 2001. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.

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