Finding a good deterrent for bad behaviour is harder than it sounds.  

Ask liberal Amsterdam, another European city wrestling with ways to deal with nuisance neighbours who make life miserable for everyone else.  

Britain has been experimenting since the Tony Blair years with what it calls ASBOs — court-ordered restrictions known as anti-social behaviour orders to penalize loud-mouthed louts.  

But Amsterdam, where you can legally smoke up in the city's licenced marijuana cafes, wants to go a step further.  

Tenants of public housing who act up despite repeated police warnings may soon find themselves dispatched to a kind of rehabilitation centre — for a six-month stint in container housing with only basic amenities — in the hope they might change their ways.  

"Scum camp," it is being called.  

To bring the idea forward, Amsterdam's mayor had only to look backward.  

In the 1800s, the country levelled a similar comeuppance on men behaving badly, according to the Dutch newspaper Parool. Then, anti-social behaviour earned you banishment to a rural village designated just for no-hopers.  

The problem was, it fast became a no-go ghetto for everyone else, including the authorities, so it wasn't a very good solution.

But Amsterdam's city fathers are so frustrated with the almost 13,000 complaints the city gets annually about rude and anti-social behaviour that they feel they the need to do something dramatic.  

As they see it, these public housing yobs are driving their law-abiding neighbours to distress and, in extreme cases, to move.

"This is the world turned upside down," says Mayor Eberhard van der Laan.

ASBOs

The mayor's million-dollar plan would consign the worst offenders to six-month stints in areas with few municipal services but lots of surveillance, a notion first advanced by the controversial right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

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Dutch police have had their hands full lately, clashing with squatters, asylum seekers and unruly tenants in public housing. Amsterdam's mayor is saying enough. (Associated Press)

 

It's already in practice on a trial basis. A dozen offenders presently enjoy lodgings in shipping containers reconfigured to be apartments.  

"Repeat offenders should be forcibly removed from their neighbourhood and sent to a village for scum," Wilders told reporters last year. "Put all the trash together."  

The Dutch approach, still in the proposal stage, shares the spirit — if not the severity — of China's notorious "re-education camps," where social offenders are sent for up to four years of hard labour to effect a change of behaviour.  

But neither shares the unique properties of Britain's alphabet-soup approach, which has something like 19 different conditions, including ASBOs, for dealing with an increasing range of loutish behaviour. 

Introduced in 1998 by Blair's Labour government, ASBOs are intended to restrict the kind of public behaviour that bothers people — public drunkenness, loud music, tenants burning their trash in the back yard — things that don't necessarily call for a criminal prosecution.  

The problem, however, is that these ASBOs have become increasingly bureaucratic, according to the current Conservative government. And they don't actually seem to have much impact on repeat offenders. 

Take the case of the Lancashire man who has become the ASBO poster boy as "Britain's most badly-behaved dad."  

The record of this unemployed father of 12 includes mugging elderly pensioners, public drunkenness, and a long history of noise, fights and parties that prompted 125 complaints from neighbours over three years.  

He was back in court recently to collect another ASBO; four of his kids have them as well.

The newest plan

The argument in favour of ASBOs is that they require a lower burden of proof than a criminal offence.  

But the flaws appear when you consider they've been issued to kids as young as 12, and adults of 87. In one case, a granny was playing Sinatra too loud for the neighbours.

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Community support officers, shown here cycling through Barwell in central England, are supposed to respond to local complaints. But they have been overwhelmed: in 2010,for example,there were an estimated 12.5 million complaints of anti-social behaviour in England and Wales. (Darren Staples / Reuters)

Then there was the one issued to a 60-year-old Northampton man who persisted in dressing as a schoolgirl. His ASBO states no showing legs during school hours.  

A Conservative Home Office study two years ago found that more than half were breached at least once, and that teenage gang members tended to look on them as something of a badge of honour. 

Critics say these behaviour orders are too often issued inappropriately to people with addictions, mental health issues, or conditions such as Asperger's or Tourette's, which call for a different kind of response.  

The minority Conservative government says it gets it, and wants to streamline the system (to include a requirement for immediate police action if a complaint is made by five or more households).  

But its proposals have been hung up for almost two years now, reportedly because of a dispute with its minority partner, the Liberal Democrats.  

The Conservatives want to upgrade the ASBO with the CRIMBO — criminal behaviour order — intended to be quicker and more effective (and just as much fun to say).  

But the government's coalition partners apparently feel the CRIMBO, along with a proposal allowing for detention if an ASBO is breached, could push more misbehaving teens into the criminal justice system, after decades of trying to find a new way of dealing with that particular problem.  

So there you have it. The Netherlands favours re-education but just for six months, while the British ASBO simply tells offenders what not to do and hopes they'll do it. Or else maybe they will face a criminal sanction.  

Nobody seems to have it exactly right yet. And probably never will.