Britain's 'quiet streets' drive targets teens

Under new rules, unruly youths could be sent to jail for minoroffenses, such as violating curfews.

In a campaign similar to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's efforts to improve quality of life, Britain is getting tough on so-called "neighbors from hell."

A recent law gives local authorities power to impose curfews and even ban troublesome youths from certain streets. While Britain has no written Constitution to guarantee citizens' rights, civil liberty advocates warn that provisions of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act infringe on fundamental freedoms.

This past week, two 17-year-olds in Liverpool, in western England, became the first juveniles to be served with antisocial behavior orders under the act. Police had videotaped the pair brandishing hammers, throwing objects, spitting, and jumping on abandoned cars.

The youths, neither of whom has a criminal record, face up to five years in prison if they set foot in six streets near their homes, cause criminal damage anywhere in Liverpool, or harass or intimidate other residents.

The case is prompting local authorities around Britain that have hesitated to impose antisocial behavior orders, or to order nighttime curfews, to considering doing so.

In Lichfield, in central England, police have pledged to target known vandals and to begin a rolling program of road checks and street patrols to ensure behavior orders are obeyed. Alan Birch, chairman of Lichfield's crime-prevention panel, says, "Ours is not a large community, but a survey has shown that citizens are worried about street crime and want firm action."

According to the British Home Office, 10-to-17-year-olds made up 25 percent of known offenders in 1996, with most youth crimes committed by a core of persistent offenders. And while overall crime rates were down in 1997, there was an increase in violent attacks, robberies, and sexual offenses.

Still, "the government is overreacting," says John Wadham, director of Liberty, a British civil rights group. "There is a danger that conduct that is merely unruly will be equated with serious crimes," he says.

Fran Russell, spokeswoman for the Howard League, which campaigns for reform of the criminal justice system, claims the government is "making criminal offenses out of acts which aren't necessarily criminal in themselves."

Prime Minister Tony Blair is unlikely to be swayed by such complaints. Mr. Blair and Jack Straw, his law and order minister, embarked over the weekend on what they termed "a moral crusade" to rid Britain of antisocial behavior by young children and teens. It is also being tied in to an effort to curb teenage pregnancy.

Mr. Blair told the Observer newspaper Sept. 5: "We need to find a new national moral purpose for this generation. Government can play its part, but parents must play their part too."

Valerie Riches, director of Family and Youth Concern, a right-wing lobbying group, says Blair is introducing "destructive and counterproductive policies." The prime minister must decide whether parents or the government should be responsible for the behavior of children, she says. "He can't have it both ways."

Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, urged the government to appoint a minister for the family, who could ensure that official policies strengthen that institution. "Until that is done, politicians are merely using rhetoric," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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