Asbos in NI reach all-time low

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The number of Asbos granted in Northern Ireland reached an all-time low last year, criminal justice inspectors revealed.

Six were allowed to police tackling persistent bad behaviour. Changes to PSNI structures leaving most districts without dedicated anti-social behaviour officers and a lack of training was blamed by police for the declining usage, according to Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland.

Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) are court orders which can ban a person from threatening, intimidating or disruptive actions, spending time with a particular group of friends or visiting certain areas.

The inspectorate said it was a cross-cutting issue requiring significant partnership between different agencies like police and district councils to prevent the problem, intervening and enforcing where necessary.

The inspectorate’s report said: “Inspectors believe that Asbos should not stand in isolation as a punitive tool, but should incorporate a package of support to assist young people to change their behaviour.

“In addition, given the lengthy nature of an Asbo in the short life of a young person, there should be an opportunity for young people to have the order reviewed every six months so that the ASBO can be amended or quashed, if they have demonstrated behavioural change.”

The number granted since 2005 declined from 32 (22% of the overall total of Asbos from 2005 to 2011) in 2006 to six last year (4%). On average 40% of Asbos were allowed against those aged under 18. Concern was raised about potential discrimination against young people, according to the report.

Police told inspectors Asbos were a useful tool, the final stage in a graduated response, where other methods had failed. The report said it was believed a larger number of warning letters and acceptable behaviour contracts were being used.

Officers told inspectors responsibility for applying for Asbos had been diluted between a greater number of individuals who did not have the same level of knowledge about the processes as dedicated officers. It was suggested there was no training available about the process and information in the PSNI intranet.

The report said: “This lack of awareness therefore potentially led to them being under-utilised.”

Anti-social behaviour includes begging in the streets, vandalism or petty theft. Asbos tend to be granted against persistent offenders.

According to the report, Belfast City Council estimates that anti-social behaviour in its parks and leisure properties costs between £500,000 and £1 million each year. The high student population in the Holyland area of south Belfast was blamed for high levels of anti-social behaviour last year, 6,041 cases in the policing district.

The document highlighted the importance of partnership between the justice system and other Government departments and agencies.

Brendan McGuigan, Acting Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, said: “Anti-social behaviour is a cross-cutting issue which requires significant partnership working in the areas of prevention, intervention and enforcement.”

The Community Safety Strategy was launched by Justice Minister David Ford in July.

Mr McGuigan added: “Inspectors feel this strategy has the potential to deliver a more co-ordinated approach to dealing with anti-social behaviour and have urged the Department of Justice to encourage organisations with responsibility for community safety matters, from within and outside the justice sector, to collaborate at a strategic and local level to take forward its implementation.”

The inspection report also highlights the significant role the recently established Policing and Community Safety Partnerships (PCSPs) have.

Mr McGuigan added: “PCSPs have a duty to educate local communities around the reality as opposed to the ‘fear’ of being subject to anti-social behaviour and crime. Engagement and increased knowledge in this area would engender greater understanding about what justice agencies can and cannot deliver.

“In addition PCSPs have an important role to play in providing community input to the decision-making process around how anti-social behaviour is addressed.

“This can be achieved through sharing of knowledge and facilitation of communication and discussion between independent members of the community, political parties and statutory agencies.”