Collage by Exposure using hammer image by Gerd Altmann and park bench image by Alexander Fox | PlaNet Fox both from Pixabay
Criminalising those most in need has no place in modern politics says Kerrie Portman
Earlier this year UK political parties spoke of plans to toughen up on anti-social behaviour laws, including plans to increase the number of police officers and introduce ‘respect orders’ to give police increased powers to punish adults with Anti-Social Behaviour Injunctions (ASBIs).
However, many who work in the legal field understand these laws are used to penalise minority groups when there is not a criminal case. Writing in the Justice Gap, an online magazine about law and justice, Dr Rona Epstein, an honorary research fellow at Coventry University states that “sanctions imposed for breach of ASBIs raise profound issues of social justice and abuse of power” also noting in a separate blog about crime and poverty that “many of these concerned people who appeared to be particularly vulnerable.”
The over-representation of vulnerable and minority groups within the legal system and anti-social behaviour laws is not a new issue. In the 1500s and 1600s witchcraft was an anti-social crime in the UK, though historians now theorise motivations behind the witch trials to include misogyny, social conflicts around reformations and capitalism.
Anti-social behaviour laws have a well-established past as a means to criminalise the poor, disabled, queer and different
In March 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that people begging on the streets will be targeted as part of the Conservative crack-down on Anti-Social Behaviour, saying it was “distressing” for people to see. The vast majority of people begging on the street do it because they don’t have another option, especially during the Cost of Living Crisis the country is facing.
The Conservatives also awarded private landlords the power to evict anti-social tenants with only two weeks’ notice and vague criteria open to exploitation. Again, this is during a national housing crisis. This move also raised concerns of harm to victims of domestic abuse, who are often reported by neighbours for anti-social behaviour due to violence in the home.
Anti-social behaviour laws have a well-established past as a means to criminalise the poor, disabled, queer and different. As summarised by anti-racism activist and social commentator, Maurice Mcleod, “People who use illegal drugs, rough sleepers, renters and graffiti artists are all part of the great unwashed that the government wants us to be angry with. As usual, people of colour will find themselves at the frontline as police gain yet more power to act disproportionately towards young Black men in inner cities.”
If we, as young people, campaign for the things that matter to us, we stand more of a chance in getting politicians to listen
Understanding the intersectionality and profile of those over-represented within ASBIs is the first step to understanding how to truly tackle the root cause of the issue. The University of Sheffield’s Professor Richard Rowe (et al) reports that “a wealth of evidence shows that antisocial behaviour is more common in children from families of lower socioeconomic status.”
Supporting struggling families, those with mental illness and disabilities, victims of domestic abuse, those who are homeless and those who are struggling to afford food will take the strain off the behaviours that are the issue. Attempting to cover the issues with a plaster of legal sanctions will not fix the underlying issues and will make many of them worse. Demonising these groups in public and political discourse increases the divide in society and sacrifices the already vulnerable as ‘straw men’.
The next General Election is to be no later than 24 January 2025, probably earlier to avoid campaigning during the holiday, and political parties are already acutely aware of this. They tend to tailor their manifestos and policies towards people they think are most likely to vote for them.
Unfortunately, younger voters are often overlooked in traditional politics. If we, as young people, campaign for the things that matter to us, we stand more of a chance in getting politicians to listen, especially leading up to election season.
For London’s democracy to work for everyone, every voice must be heard.
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