Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) have failed, and failed utterly.
You only need to look at the latest statistics. In response to 59,000 incidents in 2015/16, only two Asbos were taken out.
Anti-social behaviour is not falling – it might even be rising. The 61,201 2017/18 incidents were the most in five years.
Trevor Ringland, the former Policing Board member and reconciliation activist, makes a fair point when he says that there cannot be merely a penal strategy to anti-social behaviour. The problem is much too wide ranging and entrenched for that, encompassing schools and families and the spread of permissive values and a tendency to listen and to seek to understand bad behaviour rather than to punish it.
But while a penal response will not of itself solve the problem, it has a crucial role to play and a much greater role than at present. The real question, therefore, is not whether there is any point in having a penal response to this issue, but whether there is any will to do so.
Anti-social behaviour covers a spectrum of conduct but at its worst it is behaviour that is gravely wrong. Some people live in fear of their noisy and relentlessly anti-social neighbours, but are reluctant to complain in case their difficulties escalate. Often the targets are vulnerable and attract the attention and ridicule of bullying teenagers.
This is not a problem unique to Northern Ireland. Asbos have flopped in Great Britain too. In an example of liberal thinking on Asbos, Shami Chakrabarti, of the rights group Liberty, once said Asbos were a “Blairite totem, allowing children to be gratuitously named and shamed and imprisoned rather than cared for with both love and boundaries”.
But far from gratuitous imprisonment,orders have been ignored across the UK, 98% of which breaches do not lead to jail. Some years ago the government tried to replace Asbos and failed, but we cannot as a society just accept that some unlucky people will have their lives blighted by bad conduct.