Monday, 4 June 2007

The Police & ASBOs - Fixing Broken Windows?

Between 1990 and 2005 the total number of crimes reported in New York fell from 1,144,874 to 491,829, despite an increase in population of over a million. Violent crime has more than halved and the number of reported murders is almost a quarter of the 1990 figure. Why? The answer is not simple, but it seems that a major contributing factor was the City and the Police Department adopting a “Broken Windows” Policy.

The theory behind the Broken Window Policy is as follows:


Disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighbourhoods as in run-down ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. (It has always been fun).

The method used to implement the policy was simple, a visible police presence and zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour. This took the form of the Police department getting officers out of their cars and back on the beat. City officials did their part by fixing those broken windows and removing graffiti. Figures show that these easily implemented measures had a massive effect on reducing crime, and when surveyed the population felt safer both at home and on the streets. The leaders of New York realised that order-maintenance had a much greater effect on reducing crime than crime-solving did.

So what is going wrong in the UK? While the government issue figures telling us that the occurrence crime is falling, why do we the people believe that it is increasing and feel less safe? It could be said that our perception of crime is skewed by increased media coverage. We are more aware of crime even if we live in a relatively crime free area. A more likely cause is our loss of faith in the law (windows are being broken but they aren’t being fixed).

The government have tried to implement the Broken Windows Policy but have failed due to one important factor: new laws have been introduced and the police have used them, however the government have failed to provide enough prison places to ensure they are enforced correctly. The police’s major weapon against anti-social behaviour is the ASBO (Antisocial behaviour order). The ASBO could be an excellent law enforcement tool if used correctly, unfortunately it isn’t.

The idea was that if you were issued with an ASBO and you broke the conditions of that order, you would go to prison. Of the 3,500 ASBOs handed out in England and Wales in 2004-05 (a 60 per cent rise on the figures for 2003-2004) 55% were broken. The NAO (National Audit Office) figures show that the average offender breaks the conditions of their ASBO four times, with one offender breaking the conditions of his order 25 times. This deterrent is obviously not working, if it was working the average offender would never break the conditions of their ASBO, or they would break them only once before going to prison.

The lack of prison places has turned the ASBO into a guard dog with no teeth. It must be incredibly frustrating for the police to be continually picking up the same people for crimes over and over again. If the ASBO worked, fewer would need to be issued as it would be seen as a genuine deterrent, but at the moment it is regarded by many tearaways as a badge of honour. Unfortunately this is a catch 22 situation. Without sufficient prison places the ASBO cannot fulfil its potential as a deterrent, and until people are locked up for breaking the conditions of their orders, more and more orders are going to be issued and broken.

We need more prison places now, or we will never have enough.

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W G Gruff said...

Issuing ASBOs is rather like the way some parents discipline their children: 'If you do that again I will be very angry, I mean it ... I won't tell you again, next time I will be cross ... how many times must I tell you ... ' etc., while the unruly brat charges unconcerned round the supermarket or rolls on the post office floor.

My father used to tell me once and I knew there would be no second warning. I grew up knowing what I should and shouldn't do to avoid retribution. Badly behaved children develop under ineffectual parents.

Firm guidance is all that is required in most cases.

Daily Referendum said...

Mr Gruff,

Spot on, I was going to add a similar analogy but the post was getting a bit long. Unless the ASBOs are enforced they are useless.