One of the great policy failures of the Blair and Brown governments in the UK has been Anti-Social Behaviours Orders, or ASBOs, as they are known.   Yet, Western Australia’s Attorney-General, Christian Porter, is champing at the bit to give police in his state similar powers.  Yesterday Porter announced the introduction of the Prohibited Behaviours Bill, which would see people jailed for anti-social behaviour.

ASBOs were introduced into the UK in 1998 by the Blair government, and expanded in 2003.  The idea underpinning them was to stamp out unruly behaviour by young people, graffiti, public drunkenness and harassment of members of the community.  As will be the case in Western Australia if Porter has his way, in the UK courts can issue an order banning an individual from forms of behaviour that assisted in, or contributed to, an offence.  This means, for example, a young person who, while hanging out in a shopping mall with his friends and shoplifts a Freddo frog, could be banned from going into that mall.  ASBOs are orders made in addition to any criminal penalty and if you breach one you can go to jail — in the case of WA the proposal is for up to two years.  Prosecutors and police love ASBOs because they require less evidence than a criminal case.

And what sort of behaviour could result in a person being subjected to an ASBO?  According to Porter, “Anti-social behaviour encompasses criminal acts which cause alarm, intimidation or harassment to the community”. This would include spitting in the street, playing loud music, using foul language or being drunk in a public place.

The problem with ASBOs is that they are used against people with mental illness, old people and the homeless.  They, and vulnerable young people who more often than not have learning difficulties or mental illness issues themselves, end up in the prison system.  In the UK, one third of ASBOs are given to people with mental illness and the Brain Institute in the UK found, in a 2007 report, that 30% of young people who are given ASBOs have acquired brain injury or mental health problems.

Just as importantly, ASBOs don’t work.  One famous report, or infamous, depending on your point of view, released in 2007 found that the majority of young people get landed with an ASBO regard it as a “badge of honour”.  Almost 50% of the orders are breached and as The Economist reported on October 1, “in recent years ASBO issuance has plummeted … as it has become clear that the orders are not very effective at stopping the behaviour they are meant to prevent”.

One of the justifications  Porter is using for introducing the failed ASBO model into WA is because he says there has been a 48% increase in reported assaults in that state in the past 10 years.  What he did not say is that according to the latest ABS data, the number of reported assaults has actually dropped since 2007.  And Porter also conveniently left out the fact that as the University of Western Australia Crime and Research Centre reported in 2008, “reported assault rates had increased as a result of changes to family and domestic violence legislation and by improved recording capabilities and strategies within WA police to encourage reporting of these offences.”  In other words, it is not the case that there has been a massive increase in assaults in WA that would justify heavy-handed ASBOs.

Peter Fray

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