13 February 2007

No Justice for Youth Justice - anyone but Louise Casey

The Guardian has reported that Blair fancies Louise Casey to head up the Youth Justice Board - using it as a platform from which to take forward his Antisocial Behaviour Agenda after he is deposed in May.

This would be a worrying development - and one that everyonce concerned about youth justice should hope does not come to pass. Louise Casey has led something of a charmed life since leaving the world of the London homelessness sector. While she headed up the rough sleepers strategy, there were repeated, well substantiated allegations that rough sleeper counts were manipulated to 'prove' a reduction in rough sleepers. Approaches such as changing the count criteria, temporary opening of shelters on the nights before counts, food and quiz nights - all these and more were reported as ways of pushing the count down.

Unfortunately, few organisations had the confidence or resources to speak out: those that did were threatened with having their funding cut. those that made supportive comments and kept schtum about the manipulated counts were awarded new contracts.

Such strategies have endured since she moved on to the Antisocial Behaviour Unit. But rather than trying to reduce homelessness, Casey has done a 180 degree turn and is now endorsing policies that put people out of housing and on to the streets. In moves that would, one would hope, appall old stable mates at Shelter, Casey has taken forward an agenda which has seen people removed from housing and put directly on to the streets. Centuries of property right and hard-wons gains like tenancies have been overturned by new civil powers incorporated in to anti-social behaviour legislation.

If past experience is anything to go by, Casey, is appointed to the Youth Justice Board, would put punitive measures to the fore: in a 2004 interview she made her stance clear: "Not to challenge behaviour is a very British thing, and we have at times felt sorry for the minority of perpetrators. We think the way to deal with them is by feeling sorry for them and providing more and more services to them in the hope that maybe then their behaviour becomes checked. What is missing is the community saying we have had enough, we have rights too and we have a right to a decent honest way of life with our kids being able to be brought up in peace." [http://www.together.gov.uk/article.asp?c=32&aid=1093]

In the same interview, Casey dismissed concern about ASBOs, saying "I think the criticisms recently have been in the minority. If you read the newspaper coverage of ASBOs, it is immensely positive, and I now find it interesting that even publications like the Guardian are struggling to find holes in them."

This attitude sums up both the Government's and Casey's approach - that if it's well received by the media and popularist it should carry on. In practice there are far bigger holes - such as those reported by the Youth Justice Board:

"Nearly half of the young people whose case files were reviewed, and the vast majority of young people who were the subjects of
in-depth interviews, had been returned to court for failure to comply with their order. The majority had ‘breached’ their ASBO
on more than one occasion. Eighteen young people were sentenced for breach of an ASBO as the sole offence: for one young person,
the outcome was a custodial sentence." [http://www.yjb.gov.uk/publications/Scripts/fileDownload.asp?file=ASBO+Summary%2Epdf]

One suspects that, should she take over at the Youth Justice Board, such criticism would be a thing of the past.

More recently, the Runnymede trust noted that there had been a failing on the part of those delivering, enforcing and monitoring ASBOs to monitor ethnicity - as such this is a failing under the Race Relations Amendment Act and ultimately the responsibility of the Antisocial Behaviour Unit for failing to instruct that such monitoring should take place.
[ http://www.runnymedetrust.org/publications/pdfs/Final%20Report%20Equal%20Respect.pdf]

There has been a growing level of concern about the misuse of ASBOs, and the high breach rate. The Home Office has been reluctant to release accurate figures, despite requests under the Freedom of Information Act from Asboconcern and others.

But despite this we know that:

British Institute for Brain Injured Children (BIBIC) found that up to 35 percent of asbos imposed on young people are given to children with a diagnosed mental disorder or accepted learning difficulty. This represents approximately 1100 cases since asbos were introduced.

As at October 2006, the Home Office had still refused to release breach rates for ASBOs despite repeat requests. Figures up to the end of December 2004 showed a breach rate of 40%.

But reports from some councils (e.g. Westminster) showed a breach rate of 60%.

So despite the claims made for Antisocial Behaviour Orders and the Respect Agenda, they have, to date, been a collection of media friendly, populist measures. But the Home Office has obfuscated on the evidence, and failed to look beyond the headlines. It hasn't looked at the level of breaches for people receiving orders. It has stigmatised and criminalised children with mental disorders. It has legitimised "naming and shaming" of children as social policy. It has taken people with dependencies and made them homeless. And it has prohibited vulnerable people from carrying harm reduction equipment such as condoms.

Louise Casey has been the leading light and champion of these measures and as such is not fit to lead as essential a body as the Youth Justice Board.

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