Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Britain Cracks Down on Nasties

BIRMINGHAM, England -- The first hint that all was not well with the new neighbor came the day he moved in, when he seemed strangely proud of his prison-issue electronic ankle bracelet. Things went downhill from there.

First came demands to "borrow" items like light bulbs, food, money for the bus. Then, when nearby families objected to his late-night fights and banging on the walls, the neighbor, Ian Dickens, embarked on a one-man terror campaign, blasting his music at night, shouting abuse from his windows and threatening to kill the local children.

In November, a Birmingham court decreed that enough was enough and served Dickens with an "anti-social behavior order" made possible by one of an array of measures enacted by Prime Minister Tony Blair's government since 1999 to confront what is widely seen as an erosion of civilized norms in this once polite country.

In the past four years, about 1,600 Britons have been served such orders as part of an aggressive effort by the state to police behavior that would once have been the purview of families or neighborhoods -- everything from truancy to drunken brawling on the street.

Using an arsenal of additional measures, the authorities can also fine or jail the parents of children who chronically skip school, impose on-the-spot fines for things like drunkenness and defacing public property and evict "neighbors from hell" from public housing. Recipients of the anti-social orders, perhaps the most extreme of the new measures, can be banned from entering certain neighborhoods or hanging out with a particular group of people -- even from wearing certain clothes or visiting members of their own families.

Dickens, 35, was banned for five years from menacing his neighbors or setting foot around the public housing project where he had lived. When he quickly violated the order, he was nearly as quickly jailed.

Not everyone loves the new anti-social orders. Some say they stigmatize and marginalize a population that is already on the fringes of society, leaving the offenders with little hope of improvement or rehabilitation. Others argue that the orders are not used enough and are dauntingly difficult to enforce.

"The anti-social orders have become almost a joke," Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, a victims' rights group, said in an interview. "They're almost impossible to implement and very easy to break."

But in a country where gun crimes and murders are still relatively rare, conduct loosely defined as anti-social has proliferated in recent years, proponents of the measures say. In a 24-hour experiment meant to provide a snapshot of a typical day last fall, the Home Office recorded 60,000 instances of such behavior -- from abusive words to urinating in public -- more than one every two seconds. "It's the single most important issue raised by voters, and it denotes how politics has changed," Frank Field, a Labor member of Parliament and the author of "The Politics of Behavior," said in an interview. "When I started, it was the politics of class, and now it's the politics of behavior."

The reasons for the rise in anti-social behavior are complex, but include the breakdown of traditional families, a decline in old habits of deference and respect and, in the view of many in government, the emergence of a social security-dependent culture that promotes a feeling of entitlement but not a feeling of responsibility.

Writing in The Observer in 2002, Blair said the problem was a result of both the postwar welfare state as well as the individualistic philosophy espoused by Conservative governments in the 1980s and early '90s, which, he said, went too far in the other direction and cut off support to those in need from whole swathes of society. Alison Parsons, a policy manager in Birmingham's housing department, said Dickens' was by no means an isolated case. Since 1999, when the government first empowered the courts to begin issuing the anti-social behavior orders, a large number have been served on teenagers.

In Leeds, a girl said to be the ringleader of a gang of shoplifting youths was forbidden to travel into the city center without an adult, or to wear hooded jackets, which she was in the habit of pulling over her face to conceal her identity. In Swansea, a 16-year-old boy with a string of convictions for muggings, car thefts and harassment, was sent to prison and banned, on leaving it, from seeing 19 of his partners in crime, including two members of his family.

In Neasden, northwest London, seven local youths were banned from a local housing project after terrorizing residents with foul and abusive language, committing thefts and burglaries, threatening neighbors with knives and urinating on people's doorsteps. The authorities printed their photographs on a pamphlet and distributed it to hundreds of houses and businesses in their area.