SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND—Millbrook, a sprawling, 2-square-mile public housing project in this port city, was a fairly peaceful place until two years ago. That's when the harassment, burglaries, and rowdiness by a group of about 20 teenagers made life grim for residents. Their abusive behavior culminated last October in the fatal attack on a 40-year-old man outside a convenience store. Two teens were convicted in the murder. But the gang's mayhem continued. So Jackie Compton, a senior investigator with the city's Antisocial Behavior Team, targeted seven core members with what are widely referred to here as ASBOs, and Millbrook is quiet once more.
ASBOs, the acronym for Antisocial Behavior Orders, are popular though controversial legal measures intended to curb low-grade crimes that are a blight on urban life—such as public drunkenness, abusive language, threatening behavior, and graffiti-painting—without adding to the burden on already overloaded criminal justice systems. Introduced in 1999, they're imposed by civil courts as preventive orders to discourage bad public behavior. Recipients, sometimes as young as 10 years old, can be barred from going into certain areas, meeting with specific individuals, or banned from committing various acts in public, like swearing or drinking.
Under fire. But ASBOs are increasingly coming under fire for being overused and ineffective. Critics say success stories like Millbrook are rare. A recent University of Cambridge study by a high-ranking police officer concluded that most ASBOs don't work and are regularly ignored. What's more, they can turn young offenders into career criminals since violations can be punished with up to five years of incarceration. Around 45 percent of recipients are younger than 18.
Initially, ASBOs were meant to be an action of last resort when mediation efforts failed. But critics say they're now too often used for relatively serious crimes or to deal with people with mental-heath or substance-abuse problems. And too few receive the counseling that is supposed to be part of the program. "They've become a catchall order," warns study author Neil Wain, a chief superintendent of police in Manchester.
Wain's study includes a young man banned from his mother's neighborhood after repeatedly being picked up in cars stolen by friends. He was caught when he tried to visit her and was subsequently jailed. Others have been excluded from areas where their jobs were located. That's counterproductive, Wain argues, because steady employment and family often act as deterrents to criminal behavior. And though they're not supposed to be punitive, some restrictions are more severe than sentences handed out by criminal courts. An 11-year-old boy's five-year asbo imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on him. The most a criminal sentence could impose was a six-month curfew.
There are critics, though, who contend ASBOs often aren't tough enough. Former police officer Johnno Hills, who runs a campaign advocating a return to "traditional policing," says many young recipients think ASBOs are badges of honor. "For them, it's a bit of joke." Hills recalls a case in Brighton where a recipient had been caught eight times breaching his ASBO, "yet he just received a slap on the wrist.... If they're not rigorously enforced, they're worthless."
Still, ASBOs are broadly popular. A 2005 poll found some 8 out of 10 respondents supported the use of the orders. The residents of Millbrook are certainly believers. Because of the ASBOs, Compton says, "they feel they've got their community back."