Vice Squad
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
How to Imprison the Otherwise Unimprisonable: ASBOs in Britain

In US vice enforcement, if we want to punish someone without worrying about all those tiresome due process formalities, we use civil asset forfeiture. In Britain, they can go one better, by making prison part of the equation. The relevant device is the "Anti-Social Behavior Order," or ASBO. The idea is that you can be hauled before a magistrate in a civil proceeding, which lacks the same protections as a criminal court. For instance, hearsay evidence will be admissible. The behavior that is alleged needn't be criminal, if it is deemed to be anti-social. If you are issued an ASBO, you might be forbidden to engage in some activity for years, or to stay out of some part of town. If you disobey your ASBO, you can then be imprisoned. So, ASBOs are a wonderful device for throwing inconvenient people in prison for "offences" that themselves do not carry prison sentences.

Streetwalking (soliciting) in not an imprisonable offense in Britain (and prostitution per se is not illegal.) But ASBOs step into the breach, and now some alleged prostitutes face long jail terms. Today's Guardian has more. Here's the website of an anti-ASBO group, which provides some of the broad terminology designating anti-social behavior: "Asbos can be served against children over 10 years of age or against adults if they have behaved 'in an anti-social manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress', and that the order is 'necessary to protect persons from further anti-social acts.'"

Libby at Last One Speaks recently provided a profile of civil asset forfeiture in the US. Incidentally, probation violations provide a somewhat similar route to imprisoning folks for minor drug crimes in the US: they aren't given a jail sentence for their possession arrest, but they then flunk a mandated drug test while on probation, triggering a spell in jail.

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