One judicial innovation introduced by New Labour were Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). The motivation behind them was not unreasonable as many people were concerned about unruly behaviour, particularly by children and younger people, which appeared to be getting worse. The popular press highlighted the threat of 'hoodies' and 'feral' youths terrorising an increasingly intimidated public.
Previous to the introduction of ASBOs laws existed to regulate public nuisances of one kind or another, sometimes vaguely worded or expressed in archaic terms. A more modern attempt to address this kind of problem came with the Public Order Act 1986, which referred to 'words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress'. ASBOs were introduced as an extension of this principle, designed to be quick and efficient by 'nipping in the bud' individuals thought likely to develop repeated anti-social behaviour.
Before issuing an ASBO a magistrate must decide whether an individual has behaved in a manner ‘that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’, and that the order is necessary to stop the behaviour recurring. Breaching the conditions of an order is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison. In practice, very few ASBO applications were refused by magistrates who were often happy to grant them based on nothing more than hearsay evidence of disgruntled neighbours.
Prime minister Tony Blair was a keen enthusiast of ASBOs seeing them as a useful armoury in his Respect agenda. The government White Paper Respect and Responsibility sought 'a cultural shift… to a society where we respect each other… a society where we have an understanding that the rights we all enjoy are based in turn on the respect and responsibilities we have to other people and to our community’.
ASBOs were introduced in 2002 and for the first few years relatively few were issued, lees than 200 a year, much lower than what the government had hoped for. As a result the Home Office appointed ASBO ambassadors whose remit was to encourage authorities to make greater use of their ASBO powers. From 2003 ASBOs could be handed down by the courts after a criminal conviction, which some argued was punishing people twice for the same offence. In 2006 a National Audit Office report noted that up to 50% of ASBOs were being breached. Reports in the media suggested that some ASBO recipients regarded them as a 'badge of honour', which boosted their 'street cred' with their peers. ASBOs reached a peak of over 4000 in 2005 but by the last year of the Labour government had fallen to about 1600.
Some authorities, keen on issuing ASBOs, soon found that the vagueness of the definition as to what constitutes 'anti-social behaviour' could allow them to push the boundaries of their use beyond what was originally intended, namely challenging low-level nuisance behaviour such as vandalism and abusive neighbours. Authorities discovered that ASBOs could be an effective tool for curtailing other activities that were thought to need controlling.
Opposition to ASBOs began to grow. Youth groups, civil liberties campaigners and concerned parents argued that ASBOs had the effect of ‘criminalizing the young’ as they could be served against children from the age of ten. The probation union, NAPO, called for a re-evaluation of ASBOs on the grounds that 'far too many people are being jailed where the original offence was itself non-imprisonable" and that a 'geographical lottery' exists with massive inconsistencies across the country.
In some cases ASBOs have been issued with arbitrary and absurd conditions attached. Examples of what activities individuals can be banned from doing include; crossing a street, riding a bike, entering a shopping centre, throwing snowballs, meeting friends, riding a push-scooter on the pavement, possession of matches or lighters, entering subways, travelling on the top deck of a bus, wearing a hoodie, entering their own house by the front door, possessing a mobile phone, reading a book in a public library, staring at women, feeding pigeons in their own garden, sitting at a bus stop and being seen wearing underwear in their own home.
None of the above activities are (as yet) illegal in Britain but any individual who breached their ASBO by carrying them out could have faced a five year prison term. This is the reason why ASBOs should be unacceptable, because they criminalise activities which are not themselves criminal and, as a result of which, people can then be sent to jail. They target people not criminal activity. ASBOs were abolished by the coalition government in 2012 only to be replaced by new measures which appear to be even worse in infringing individual liberties.