Friday, 24 August 2007

Another idiotic and pointless idea, courtesy of Her Majesty's Government

Police are being urged to let more vandals, joyriders and teenage drunks escape punishment if they agree to sign a good behaviour "contract".

The Acceptable Behaviour Contracts are handed out instead of spot fines or criminal penalties.

Thugs and other offenders have to abide by promises which could include "I will not set fire to things", or "I will not damage property".

Breaking the ABCs, which normally last for six months and carry no criminal record, will not automatically mean a punishment either, as they are a voluntary agreement.

ABCs were first introduced four years ago for low-level anti-social behaviour. Almost 25,000 have been issued, and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith now wants a huge expansion in their use.

Her department has produced guidance making it clear that the contracts are to be used instead of criminal penalties.

This will give offenders a chance of avoiding court action - provided they behave themselves.

I have to say, having read this, that I am quite impressed with the government's seemingly limitless ability to propose an endless succession of new initiatives aimed at tackling crime and thuggery, without at any point suggesting what seems to me to be the most logical and effective method for dealing with young hooligans: tougher sentencing.

This latest proposal is quite the most idiotic that the government has yet come up with. Because, the new "ABCs" are completely and utterly pointless. After all, all that the young thugs who sign them (assuming that they can actually write their own names) are agreeing to do is to refrain from criminality: that is, they are agreeing to do something which society is entitled to - and does - expect all its members to do anyway, whether with their explicit agreement or not. The obligation to obey the law will not in any sense be enhanced by the signing of an ABC, because it is already absolute. And as those signing ABCs will already have shown great willingness to violate the standards expected of them, I fail to see how simply setting out the requirements in a document will make the slightest bit of difference.

This is particularly the case when the contract is one which is apparently unenforceable, in the sense that no extra adverse consequences attach to a crime in breach of ABC, than to a bare crime. As a result, the ABCs would appear to be a free gift to criminals, allowing them to commit at least one offence without fear of consequences. After all, since there are no adverse consequences attendant on breaching an ABC, and since signing one allows one to escape prosecution, then I fail to see why any young thug with an ounce of sense would not happily sign one, and then go off and continue to behave exactly as they were doing before. Since these are people who have already violated the obligation to behave decently imposed upon them by membership of society and by the dictates of morality, I doubt they'll have many qualms about breaking an ABC.

My scepticism about the ABCs would appear to be in accordance with the known facts regarding their effectiveness. Reportedly, 60% are broken. And this is in a situation where they are used sparingly, presumably in a targeted manner, focusing on those young people who are most likely to respond well to them. If used generally, in place of punishment, then I imagine that the percentage that were breached would be considerably higher.

As I wrote above, the only real way to deal with young thugs is to get tough. Prisons, boot camps, and perhaps tough community punishments for the lesser offenders is the way to go. ABCs, which carry no moral obligation and no coercive power, will prove completely ineffectual.

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