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Last Updated: Friday, 3 September, 2004, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
Can politicians stop the yobs?
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online political reporter

The war against "yob culture" is set to be a key battleground at the next general election.

Police arrest a yob
The government has declared war on 'anti-social behaviour'
Both Labour and the Conservatives have identified "anti-social behaviour" - the sort of low-level neighbourhood nuisance that can make life a misery for residents - as something voters care about.

But whether it is something they, as politicians, can do anything about is another matter.

Labour's flagship policy - the anti-social behaviour order (asbo) - has got off to a slow start, although figures produced by the party this week suggest they are beginning to catch on with local authorities.

Michael Howard, for the Tories, also backs asbos - but argues they can't work without more police on the streets to enforce them and better parenting.

Using the courts to prohibit specific types of behaviour - everything from hanging around in gangs to spitting in the street - is a new approach to the age old problem of vandalism and yobbish behaviour.

But what effect, if any, will it have on levels of crime and disorder in Britain's housing estates and city centres?

'Short, sharp shock'

Paul Cavadino, chief executive of offender rehabilitation charity Nacro, sees parallels between asbos and the Conservatives' "short, sharp, shock" experiment of the early 1980s.

Then, as now, he argues, the politicians' tough rhetoric was out of all proportion to the likely impact of the policy.

Like Mr Blair, Tory home secretary Willie Whitelaw wanted to make life uncomfortable for young offenders.

The idea was to subject them to a harsh training regime to shock them out of a life of crime.

But the four experimental centres failed to have any impact on re-offending and were criticised for simply turning out fitter criminals.

Family break-up

Despite his crowd-pleasing rhetoric at party conferences, Mr Whitelaw adopted a relatively liberal approach to crime and punishment.

Willie Whitelaw
Whitelaw: closet liberal?
He was mostly pre-occupied by what he described as the "dangerously high" prison population, which stood at around 44,000 - about half what it is today.

"We shall need to see that the prisons are not allowed to remain cluttered up with trivial and inadequate offenders who are no real threat to anyone, except possibly themselves..." he said in a 1980 speech.

In the same way, Mr Cavidino argues, Labour has devoted considerable resources - away from headline-grabbing "crackdowns" - to keeping youngsters out of trouble.

Efforts to prevent family break-up and provide access to drug and alcohol treatment and employment opportunities, are far more effective in the long run than punitive measures such as asbos, he argues.

"Asbos themselves are not a panacea. They may have a limited contribution to make.

"But if in two years time there has been a reduction in youth offending, it won't be because of asbos."

He adds: "It is a shame that the majority of the rhetoric is about a measure that will make little difference in the long run."

'Changing behaviour'

Asbos are issued by local authorities and give police special powers to take action against people who cause a persistent nuisance.

With an election coming up, they are retreating further into the tough, punitive approach, which may well be counter-productive in the long term
Sr Marian Fitzgerald, criminal psychologist
They are civil orders - so they have a lower standard of proof than criminal laws - but breaking them is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in jail.

Unlike previous youth crime initiatives, there is little pretence of rehabilitation, in keeping, perhaps, with Labour's attempt to "re-balance" the criminal justice system in favour of victims.

On a visit to a Harlow housing estate earlier this week, Mr Blair said: "You cannot change a person into something else - let's be realistic - but what has to happen is that the penalty they are paying for being a nuisance becomes more of a hassle for them than to stop being like that.

"We have to get to a critical mass, so people say it is no longer worth doing it."

Troubled teenagers

Magistrates can ban any act they deem to be "anti-social".

But campaigners argue that by criminalising more trivial offences, the government risks further alienating troubled teenagers and creating a new class of law breaker.

Dr Marian Fitzgerald, visiting research professor at the Mannheim Centre for the study of criminology, even suggests asbos could become a badge of honour among teenage troublemakers, if magistrates use their powers to "name and shame" them in the local press.

Like Mr Cavadino, she argues that Labour has, to some extent, kept its promise of being "tough on the causes of crime", with unheralded initiatives such as Sure Start helping to set young people born into poverty on the right track.

"Some of the stuff they are doing around younger people is a genuine attempt to address the causes, yet they seem reluctant to talk about it.

"They have made tough promises around crime they haven't been able to keep.

"And now with an election coming up, they are retreating further into the tough, punitive approach, which may well be counter-productive in the long term," she says.

Some police forces, she adds, are making progress in tackling anti-social behaviour, often through the use of the less punitive anti-social behaviour contracts.

But they now find themselves under pressure to hit targets for imposing asbos - coming down hard on the very people they were trying to help mend their ways.

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