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Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and the Construction of Young People

This essay will explore Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and the construction of young people by examining a mixture of academic and mainstream media sources, which will be combined with personal analysis of the topic.  The term "construction" refers to the way in which a perception of an issue is created and maintained, both deliberately and unintentionally, while within social care work the term "young people" encompasses people up to the age of 19 (HM Treasury, 2004).  The issue will initially be explored by outlining the origin and characteristics of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, then considering the topic's relevance to social work practitioners and defining the key concepts surrounding the subject, before discussing the discourse created around the subject by the government and the media.  Finally conclusions will be presented.  The essay aims to discover how the construction of young people around anti-social behaviour affects social work practitioners.  

Coming into law in April 1999, ASBOs were created in order to tackle what New Labour sees as one of the most pressing problems facing society in the UK today - anti-social behaviour.  However, many sustained analyses of the meaning of anti-social behaviour come to the same conclusion; the concept is so nebulous that practically any behaviour can - and has been - labelled thus.  ASBOs are set in motion when a complaint is made about a person's behaviour, either to police or a local authority.  Once a complaint has been made, the statutory bodies will encourage the complainant and other witnesses to make statements to be used as evidence.  A local authority official will then make an application to a magistrate's court, where the evidence will be heard.  The magistrate will then decide whether to issue an ASBO, and what specific conditions it will employ.     An ASBO has a minimum duration of two years, with no upper limit, although ASBOs issued for indefinite periods of time "must have arrangements for review in place" (Home Office, 2000).   Where ASBOs most radically depart from conventional legal procedures is in the way in which an ASBO can prohibit its subject from doing anything - entering a certain area, engaging in particular activities, or associating with certain people.  Each ASBO is specifically tailored to its subject.  This aspect has come under particular criticism: "Legal objections centre on the fact that ASBOs allow people to be imprisoned for non-criminal offences. ASBOs are not penalties for criminal offences, but breaching an ASBO is a criminal offence. This effectively creates personalised laws for particular individuals" (Cummings, 2005).

An article published in October of last year in the Burton Mail, a Staffordshire local newspaper, serves as a perfect example of a "typical" ASBO piece.  The subject - or "neighbour from Hell" - of the ASBO was "booted out" of her home following a "campaign of terror" against her community.  The crimes listed in the article included playing music at very loud volumes, using threatening and abusive language against her children's teachers, and engaging teenaged "enforcers" to intimidate members of the community.  The piece ends with its subject pleading with her community to "give her a chance", before blaming the media: "It's the papers that have ensured all the problems".  The problem with this kind of coverage of ASBO subjects is the way in which it focuses solely on their alleged behaviour, without ever attempting to analyse or examine either the reasons behind these types of offences, whether ASBOs are an appropriate response to them, and if the evidence-gathering processes behind them are rigorous enough. 

In conclusion, all the matters raised thus far can only serve to increase the difficulties faced by social care practitioners working with young people who have been affected by ASBOs.   Unable to distance itself from an initiative which it has invested so much time, publicity and public money, the government has instead adopted a "full steam ahead" approach to the issue of youth anti-social behaviour, despite grave reservations from many different quarters questioning their effectiveness.  Government policy directives continue to put pressure on youth services to consider ASBOs as a "first-resort", despite what individual social workers consider to be the most appropriate response.  The punitive approach towards anti-social behaviour which has been employed as a populist vote-winner by the New Labour government means that youth social workers will often find themselves diametrically opposed to central guidance on this issue - both practically and philosophically.  Grass-roots youth workers will be aware that criminalising young people who have engaged in anti-social activities will only further alienate them from mainstream society; and as a young person becomes more marginalised it becomes more likely that they will continue engaging in behaviours which harm themselves and their community.  Many social workers will realise that only by tackling the various underlying reasons behind these types of activities - such as family break-up, unacknowledged health problems or learning difficulties, substance misuse, homelessness, lack of training and education opportunities, a shortage of leisure faciltities - can any kind of lasting solution to the problem be achieved.  However, in an environment where government and the mass media send out a message that young people engaged in anti-social behaviour are irredeemably bad, and much of the general public echo those opinions, social workers operating in this field will face an uphill battle to secure resources and co-operation from other agencies.

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