Academics slam antisocial policy

July 15, 2005

Criminologists this week attacked the Government's antisocial behaviour measures, likening ASBO trials to medieval witch-hunts and criticising ministers' preference for "soundbite, eye-catching and quick-fix solutions", writes Tom Wainwright.

The comments, made at the British Society of Criminology conference at Leeds University, follow remarks made last month by Louise Casey, the Government's antisocial behaviour chief, that there is an "obsession with evidence-based policy" in Whitehall.

Conference delegates argued that the opposite was often true - that the Government frequently launched policy backed by little research. They also said that the Government was highly selective in the research it chose to use.

Adam Crawford, who helped organise the conference, said: "This Government has committed itself to evidence-based policy, but it has a dubious history. Often initiatives have been launched on the basis of very little evidence, according to how they will play with the media."

As an example, he cited an earlier government proposal for police to march antisocial youths to cash machines to pay on-the-spot fines.

Professor Crawford said: "This one was dreamt up by Jack Straw [who was then Home Secretary], but it was quietly dropped when police objected.

There is [in the Government] a desire to launch and relaunch initiatives almost weekly, but it is difficult for them to be well founded on research.

"In criminal justice especially, the rhetorical soundbite plays well. Policies do not always appeal to rational thought, but [rather play to] public sentiment."

In a special workshop session on antisocial behaviour, UK academics were unanimously critical of the Government.

Katherine Williams, of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, presented a paper titled: Modern Witch-hunts: Appeasing Fear, Not Controlling Behaviour .

"ASBOs are seen as a panacea for all society's ills, but they are not. As in a witch trial, accusers do not even have to go to court - evidence is usually based on hearsay," she said.

Mary Rogan, of Trinity College Dublin, characterised ASBOs as "pragmatic rather than principled" in their attempt to cull the "best bits" of criminal and civil laws.

Jane Donoghue, of Stirling University, said: "[The Government is] keen to use research, but only as long as it suits them. If the results do not coincide with what they think, they just ignore it."

The Home Office declined to comment.

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