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Should we imprison people for being a pain in the neck?

Penelope Gibbs
16 Feb 2023

Anti-social behaviour is in the news. The think tank Onward have cited anti-social behaviour (ASB) as a key barrier to levelling up, and the Prime Minister said that ASB was a gateway to more serious crimes. It might be but, unfortunately, we know almost nothing about who commits ASB and what works in reducing it. For all the talk of the government’s commitment to #commonsensepolicing there has been no new policy or research on tackling anti-social behaviour since the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act in 2014. That introduced new sanctions for anti-social behaviour to replace the ASBO. In came the civil injunction and the community protection notice. As Chair of the then Standing Committee for Youth Justice I campaigned hard against the legislation, but we won only one concession – that children’s ASB cases should be dealt with in the Youth Court not the County Court. Adult hearings moved from the Magistrates’ Court to the County Court.

You wouldn’t know from current political and think tank talk that anti-social behaviour is not technically a crime and that criminal damage and drug dealing are crimes, not ASB. So the political war on ASB has got muddled. People are concerned that low level crimes are not being resolved. They have a point. We need to give the police the resources and the discretion to deal with low level crime out of court.

Meanwhile, the problems of the actual ASB justice system are being ignored. Which means ASB itself (nuisance neighbours, people creating intolerable noise, begging) is not being addressed. The answer is of course not to ban people from begging or making noise, but to address the reasons why they are doing so. The newish version of the ASBO – the civil injunction – involves local authorities, police or housing associations applying to have an individual banned from doing certain things or being in certain areas. If the person breaches their injunction they are sent back to court for punishment. All the sanctions are civil but they include imprisonment.

But the civil injunction system doesn’t seem to be working to either reduce ASB or to meet the complex needs of those who create nuisance. Floyd Carruthers had suffered with mental health problems for over 20 years and had a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He had been living in Midlands Heart Housing for 30 years where he had a designated housing officer who was aware of his mental health history and that he was receiving treatment from the community mental health team. Even so the housing association sought to have an anti-social behaviour injunction imposed on him in March 2021 for instigating a neighbour dispute – “engaging or threatening to engage in conduct which is capable of causing nuisance or annoyance”. The day after the interim injunction was imposed he knocked on his neighbour’s door again. Twice. And the second time he damaged it. Midlands Heart Housing maybe forgot the heart in their name and sent Floyd back to court for breaching the injunction.

Civil courts have no expertise in dealing with vulnerable plaintiffs at risk of imprisonment. In this case District Judge Kelly consulted her ASB guidelines and sentenced Floyd to four months in prison – a far more punitive sanction than he would ever have got had he been prosecuted in a magistrates’ court. The judge referred to the detention in prison as rehabilitative. Unfortunately, as with most short prison sentences, it was anything but.

Information about Floyd’s mental health problems did not reach the prison. He died on 14th June 2021 after staying in his cell in HMP Birmingham for four whole days and leaving many evening meals untouched. He was taken by ambulance to Birmingham City Hospital, where he was discovered to have bacterial endocarditis which had led to septic shock and multi-organ failure. The bacterial endocarditis likely developed while he was in prison, in the weeks or months before he collapsed.

Floyd died mainly because of the failure of prison healthcare. But we should also challenge why he was there in the first place. Should mentally ill people be imprisoned because they are causing a nuisance? Can we not find another way of resolving neighbourhood disputes caused by troubled social housing residents?

Recent research by More in Common suggested that most people think anti-social behaviour should be treated as a serious crime. But I wonder if most people, having heard Floyd’s story, would think that he deserved imprisonment just for being a pain in the neck? Especially since most people in the same survey expressed concerned that mental health issues were being mistaken for crimes.