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The New Anti-Social Behaviour Bill Risks Criminalising Children for Being Children

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On Tuesday, MPs debated the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill in committee. This aims to reform the infamous and much maligned ASBOs by creating a set of tougher, and easier to obtain, measures to tackle anti-social behaviour. We have signed a joint letter with the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and twenty-four charities published in the Times last week.

While there are some elements in the new bill that would improve how anti-social behaviour is tackled, The Children's Society is very disappointed that the government has in fact worsened anti-social behaviour measures for children. We fear that the measures could seriously affect the way children go about living their everyday lives.

The bill proposes to replace the ASBO with a new Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA). This injunction radically widens the scope of the types of behaviour subject to anti-social behaviour measures. It can be used for children as young as 10 if they behave in a way that is capable of causing "nuisance and annoyance". This is instead of causing "harassment, alarm and distress", as defined by ASBOs.

This lower threshold will cover a huge range of normal childhood behaviour and could result in many more children being unnecessarily drawn into the criminal justice system. Widening the net of children or adults subject to anti-social behaviour will also fail victims as it will waste police time on trivial incidents and clog up the courts.

Despite not being a law breaking activity, 'teenagers hanging around' has been the item which provokes the most continuous concern in the population in the British Crime Survey from 2004 to 2009. The Association of Chief Police Officers has also expressed concern that these measures could be 'too subjective' and' unnecessarily criminalise' children.

This is extremely worrying given the high prevalence of negative perceptions of young people and given that breach of the injunction could ultimately result in a jail term for over-14s. This means children can be imprisoned for not having actually committed a criminal offence, but merely having annoyed someone.

The other measure included in the bill - the Criminal Behaviour Order (CBOs) which is delivered on conviction of an anti-social behaviour offence - proposes an even harsher sanction of two years' imprisonment.

We believe that such sanctions are extremely disproportionate for young people involved in anti-social behaviour, let alone those involved in behaviour perceived as annoying or a nuisance. Nor are they in line with the youth justice system.

Prison is counter-productive, harmful for children and in such cases, extremely disproportionate. Once in prison, children become trapped in criminal networks and re-offending cycles that they cannot escape for the rest of their life.

We know from our decades of experience and practice in this area, that anti-social behaviour can be a symptom of children's unmet needs. Many children in trouble with the law are disabled or have learning difficulties. High proportions have experienced neglect or abuse, been in care, excluded from school and/or largely come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is much better to tackle children's anti-social behaviour by informal, 'restorative justice' approaches. These work with the young person - and the victim - to understand the impact their behaviour has had and address the causes behind it.

For example, young people who worked with our intergenerational community cohesion project in South London tell us that they have learnt that the estates used to be much friendlier places to live, which can explain some of the elders' attitudes towards them. Older people also come to realise that some younger people share many of their own concerns about community safety, and not all of them hang around causing trouble all the time.

The Children's Society is calling on the government to reconsider these disproportionate and flawed measures. We want the introduction of informal interventions in the bill that will tackle the root causes of children's anti-social behaviour, instead of criminalising children for normal childhood behaviour.

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