Addressing Anti-Social Behaviour
No community is immune to anti-social behaviour. In some communities, however, the social fabric has torn to such an extent that anti-social behaviour is seen as the norm, rather than the exception. In these areas, small groups of young people are consistently engaged in behaviour that is of real danger to themselves and others. Children as young as eight, demonstrate a hard edge of maturity beyond their years and act in the full knowledge that the law cannot prosecute them and that their parents are unwilling or unable to control them.
Their actions are almost inconceivable to the average citizen: open and unashamed shoplifting, vandalism, intimidation, drug use, violence and arson. While many of these crimes do not occur on a daily basis, they fundamentally distort the quality of life for law-abiding residents in the community. Mental anguish and fear permeate the area and many are reduced to prisoners in their own homes. While huge efforts have been made to address serious crime in Limerick, the spectre of anti-social behaviour looms large in some communities, attracting far less attention from the media and state services.
The traditional approach to anti-social behaviour has been a mixture of law enforcement and social services. While this combination undoubtedly has a prominent role to play in combating the problem, there is an opportunity to look beyond this strategy. To effectively address anti-social behaviour we must first begin with the young person. The anti-social youth is a lightening rod for public anger. Many citizens fear the aggression and unpredictability of his behaviour. The citizen has every right to feel this. The disaffected youth is angry and he is unpredictable. He is this way not because he suffers from some innate malice or vindictive character though, he is angry because he is scared and vulnerable. His is a world of bravado and reputation where any sign of weakness is punished.
He is angry because he is frustrated. He is intimidated by the very basic functionings of mainstream society. His ability to express emotion, other than through aggression, is limited. His days are long and uneventful. His home may not be a safe place and so he spends hours on end sitting on walls or wandering aimlessly. He is angry because he recognises the reality of his situation. He knows that his prospects are bleak and that crime may be the only avenue open to him if he wants to ever earn more than the dole. He knows that the six or seven streets of his immediate community are the extent of his world: that or possibly prison. He knows that when he does venture outside this area many people treat him with disdain and loathing. He knows few of them are ever pleased to see him. Recognising this mindset would be a significant step forward for policymakers at all levels.
There is no silver bullet solution to anti-social behaviour. It is a challenge in every city, in every country. By focusing on the young person, however, there are three immediate steps we could make to combat the mindset that engenders such behaviour. Firstly, we could strive to create warm, safe, environments in which at-risk young people can develop, personally and socially. Unfortunately, the current policy has seen funding for many youth centres in Limerick cut by 30% in the last three years.
Secondly, we can adopt an alternative to our current legal system of redress through ‘restorative justice’. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, to repair the harm they've done—by apologising, returning stolen money, or community service. It is extremely appropriate for low-level crimes such as anti-social behaviour.
Thirdly, we can temper our traditional approach to addressing anti-social behaviour by acknowledging the realities of many marginalised communities. Social workers, as a whole, are under-resourced and over-stretched. As a consequence, there currently isn’t the capacity to facilitate an out-of-hours service in Limerick, which, given that the overwhelming majority of anti-social behaviour takes places after 5pm or on the weekends, is particularly detrimental. A middle ground here must be found, either through the reassessment of current timetables or adequate resourcing. Equally, the continued promotion and protection of community policing by An Garda Síochána has the capacity to yield considerable results when addressing conflict.
Without question, an effective policy to address anti-social behaviour will require imagination and ingenuity. Yet, by refocusing our ethos we can harness the tremendous energy and enthusiasm in Limerick. We can build on all the expertise accrued in the last six years of the regeneration process and create a new and dynamic paradigm for others to follow.