Tackling problem neighbourhoods is high on the Dutch political agenda. Nonetheless, a successful strategy to halt anti-social behaviour in these neighbourhoods hasn’t been found yet. Jan Brouwer, Professor of Legal Methods and Legal History at the University of Groningen, thinks so-called neighbourhood judges might be an answer to the problem. ‘It’s a method of re-establishing social control in a neighbourhood.’
Current efforts to limit anti-social behaviour in problem neighbourhoods are focused on deploying so-called street coaches. Brouwer says the coaches are doing a fine job, but he would like to see them granted more power. The law professor argues in favour of appointing so-called neighbourhood judges, who would be authorized to issue rules of conduct. At the moment, police, street coaches and citizens are essentially powerless to effectively halt anti-social behaviour in neighbourhoods, observes Brouwer. ‘I think the widespread support for extreme politicians like Verdonk and Wilders is related to this lack of power to act effectively. The only recourse against anti-social behaviour now available is to bring the matter before a civil judge, but that is a very expensive and time-consuming procedure.’
According to Brouwer, the neighbourhood judge is an easy and low-cost answer to this problem. In England, such a system has already been in place for ten years. There, a professional judge assisted by lay judges can punish people who misbehave by issuing an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). ‘An ASBO is an instruction for behaviour, stipulating what people may or may not do. It could for example ban a person from begging, loitering on the streets, or listening to extremely loud music with his windows open,’ explains Brouwer. People who disobey an ASBO can be criminally prosecuted. ‘The English system is far-reaching. You can even receive a five year jail sentence for disobeying an ASBO. This makes the law a very effective instrument.’
The city of Rotterdam is already using a specific type of ASBO. ‘They are called “FF Kappe orders”’, explains Brouwer, the term meaning ‘Cut it out!’ in Dutch. The mayor can issue these orders based on municipal legislation. However, since the FF Kappe orders lack a proper legal foundation, it is impossible to effectively order people to modify their behaviour. Moreover, the police have been recently rendered powerless to act, as they no longer have the general legal competence to issue orders as of January 2008. Brouwer is not in favour of the mayor issuing orders. ‘It’s better when the neighbourhood itself carries the responsibility. That’s why I’m in favour of establishing a law enabling special neighbourhood judges who could issue ASBOs. Then we could take the system even further, going as far as ordering somebody to enter rehab, for example.’ The neighbourhood judges could operate in teams of three: a professional judge assisted by two street coaches. ‘It’s a method for re-establishing social control in a neighbourhood’, says Brouwer. ‘Social control is what is needed to keep a neighbourhood liveable.’
Brouwer admits the system of neighbourhood judges has its risks. ‘The system can of course easily lead to malpractices. If a neighbourhood judge has a particular disliking for a person who has been the subject of an ASBO, the judge could really make his life difficult by stating the person has not obeyed the order’, says Brouwer. ‘However, I think in practice it won’t come to that. In England, judges really have to come up with hard evidence in such cases, so I’m not afraid of unfairness. The street coaches know the neighbourhoods. They are responsible people and they realize that the neighbourhood could turn against them were they to issue an ASBO unfairly. Moreover, there is a professional judge present who knows where the legal boundaries lie.’
Politicians should play an important role in determining the authority granted to the neighbourhood judges, says Brouwer. ‘We would all like measures to be taken against the man who is forever playing music full blast. But do we also want to take action against a Pakistani woman whose cooking produces strong smells? Where do we draw the line? Ultimately, that is up to the politicians to decide.’
Jan Brouwer (1951) studied History and Law in Groningen. As a student he taught Law and Social Studies at a school for senior secondary commercial education (MEAO) in Groningen. In 1980 and 1981, he taught Modern History at the Grande Ecole Supélec in Paris. Since then, Brouwer has worked at the departments for Constitutional and International Law, Introduction to Law and Legal Methods and Legal History at the Law Faculty of the University of Groningen. In 2005, he was appointed Professor of Legal Methods and Legal History. Brouwer focuses on issues related to public order and international and national regulation. He is a member of the appeals committees of the ministries of Health and Education, deputy judge at the court of law in Assen and Honorary Consul of France in Groningen.
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