ASBOs – Are They Fair and Do Antisocial Children Have Cortisol Deficiency?

October 3, 2008 at 11:27 am (Bad Science, Law, Media) (, , , , , , , )

As I was telling someone in a bar in Leeds a while ago, an ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) could be a very handy way of locking someone up without all that old-fashioned fuss about them having a fair trial. Once I was sober (and parted from the game of Guess Who[1] that had been unaccountably left at the table we were sitting at), I thought that this may be something worth writing about. But first I thought I’d better check my facts. How easy is it to get an ASBO, followed by a jail sentence?

“An ASBO is a civil order, not a criminal penalty – they are not intended to punish the offender – however, breach of the order can lead to a fine or imprisonment or both” and “ASBOs are not given lightly and the council and police need to have substantial evidence that a person has caused harassment, alarm and distress to others” are quotes from the Crawley Borough Council Website. I was concerned by the reference to a civil order leading to a fine or imprisonment and automatically wary of the words ‘substantial’ and ‘evidence’ being used in conjunction with the words ‘council’ and ‘police’ [apart from the traditional complaints about the police, you may also remember the case of the spying council misusing ant-terror legislation – BBC account] and the quote fails to make clear that the police and council are not, in fact, the final arbiters of this substantial evidence – magistrates are, which I actually find reassuring as I would prefer to have magistrates rule on my case than police or council officials. One complaint often made is that, although an ASBO is a civil order, breaching an ASBO can get you sent down for up to six months on summary conviction or five years if convicted on indictment[2]. This isn’t quite as unfair as it may seem at first sight (assuming that your knee-jerk reactions are as woolly and liberal as mine tend to be). Breach of an ASBO is actually treated in a similar way to other criminal offences (remember that, while an ASBO is a civil order, breaching an ASBO is a criminal offence[3]). Petty offences may be heard in a summary trial by magistrates and more serious (indictable) offences may be heard by the Crown Court with judge and jury, while triable-either-way offences probably need no explanation. Whatever the arguments for or against ASBOs, it looks like I was wrong to assume that someone could be sent down without a proper trial.

This post was written some time ago and was intended to partner a ‘sister’ blog post on whether ASBOs worked or not. In order to write the sister post, I needed before-and-after crime stats to see whether crime was reduced in areas that were more likely to use ASBOs. Unfortunately, the way crime is recorded keeps changing and I was therefore unable to find comparable figures [how anyone can tell whether crime is rising or falling is beyond me]. This meant I couldn’t write my sister post and I didn’t think it was worth writing this as a stand-alone blog post. Today though, I read a piece about kids with ASBOs being mentally ill. Ben Goldacre described this on his miniblog as “Just another bland example of flaky overhyped unreferenced speculative reductionist comedy reporting.” The Mirror has run the story here. I thought I’d take a quick look at the story and jot down a few of my thoughts. This blog post will now become what Traffic Cops must fear – a cut-and-shut job.

Everyone loves a nice straightforward, linear explanation for behaviour. The boys who killed Jamie Bulger were “evil”, depression is caused by deficiency in a single neurotransmitter and now children with ASBOs are described as mentally ill because they tend not to have a typical increase in cortisol levels when placed in a stressful situation. Basically, they are saying that kids who aren’t as scared as their peers are mentally ill and that this is all caused by a simple lack of a single neurotransmitter. Of all the descriptive terms used by Ben Goldacre, I think the most striking is ‘reductionist’ – probably because it seems to be a recurring theme in our society. There are probably many reasons why the suggestion that ‘ASBO kids are mentally ill due to deficiency in cortisol’ could be a load of old bollocks, but one that occurred to me was this: perhaps kids who are in trouble frequently enough to receive an ASBO are used to being in stressful situations. Perhaps they are ‘acclimatised’ to stressful situations because of their background, their family situation, the area in which they live? Perhaps what we call stressful is to them everyday and ordinary. Whatever – my point is that it probably isn’t helpful (at least at this early stage) to make public claims that these children are mentally ill or that their antisocial behaviour can be put down to deficiency in a single chemical. Presumably, Big Pharma is looking up “cortisol agonist” in order to start R&D on a new anti-antisocial behaviour drug. Big Altie has, as ever, beaten Big Pharma to the punch. Patrick Holford recommends Pantothenic Acid to increase levels of cortisol (Optimum Nutrition Bible, p 219). Well, he points out that Pantothenic Acid is needed to produce sufficient cortisol and then claims that in times of stress you need more of the nutrients he mentions in his book. Later on in ONB (p 261), he recommends Ginseng, Rhodiola and Reishi mushrooms to ‘maintain normal levels of cortisol’. They’ve got the cure – they’ve just been waiting for someone to invent the disease.

This is the type of story I might expect to be covered by Soveda on the Musings of a phenomenologist blog or perhaps the BPS Research Digest, but I’ve just looked and I can’t see it on either site yet. I’d be interested to see what others made of the story, so if you have any opinions on the description of antisocial youths as mentally ill or the idea that antisocial behaviour can be ascribed to deficiency in a single chemical then please leave a comment or link to your blog post on the subject. I’d love to read more opinion on this. Especially if those opinions are better informed than mine. Ooh, speaking of better informed opinions: first up is the meaningful occupation blog. Nice work OT!

1. Guess Who Is it a woman? Does she have red hair? Does she wear glasses?

2. Legal Shit an’ that (The Office of Public Sector Information – their main page is here:

3. Wikipedia: Summary_offence; Indictable_offence; Magistrates_court.

EDIT: I’ve now seen a pdf of the study and the authors discuss the possibility that the kids could be acclimatised to stress (as I clumsily put it). “Both CD subgroups may have experienced increased social adversity during development (e.g., maltreatment), or, because of heightened risk-taking behaviors, they may place themselves in stressful situations more frequently than other adolescents (leading to habituation to stressors).” See here for more: asbos-and-cortisol [PDF]


  1. Crap reporting, legitimate research « Meaningful Occupation said,

    […] at 1500 03/10/2008 Also blogged by jdc. Many thanks […]

  2. pj said,

    I think you are a bit too comfortable with magistrates, Everyone I know who is involved with the criminal justice system thinks they’re a joke. Why on earth we still have a system with part time amateurs is beyond me.

  3. jdc325 said,

    “I think you are a bit too comfortable with magistrates”
    Fair point. I have to plead ignorance on this one I think, as I have no personal experience with magistrates in court and I don’t know anyone involved with the criminal justice system. The only magistrate I ever knew was a top bloke and he seemed to know his onions, despite being a part-time amateur (he taught A-level law at one of the schools I went to), but I’m willing to believe he might have been an exception.

  4. Mark Etherton said,

    The Commons Home Affairs Committee did a report on ASBOs a couple of years ago, available at: I’m not sure how much the position on the gorund has changed (although the wide variations in frequency of ASBO use by local authorities probably hasn’t), but it must still be true that if some services and NGOs entirely absent themselves from the process, they can’t really complain if it goes wrong.

  5. jdc325 said,

    Mark – thanks for the link.

  6. The biology of crime « Musings of a phenomenologist said,

    […] biology of crime Before I start I have to thank jdc, Ben Goldacre’s mini blog on the site and Cynical OT from the Bad Science […]

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