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Criminal Policy and Social Control 101: Antisocial Behaviour as a Form of Criminality


As a Criminology course, this series aims at how policies affect criminal behaviour, emphasising the importance of its prevention and how control can be achieved in a community in order to maintain a peaceful atmosphere and civic conduct in society. Antisocial behaviour as a crime is usually taken by the literature to explain youth crime and how it can be treated, focusing on its risk factors, explanatory theories, or its treatment from jurisprudence. However, this course will explore its criminal components typified in the penal code and not from the behavioural sciences as the nature of this conduct, giving a different criminological perspective to the topic. Therefore, it will commence with a literature review of the concept of antisocial behaviour, accompanied by a theoretical and practical examination of the security measures that different EU countries have implemented and designed to prevent antisocial behaviour crimes. Bearing this goal in mind, it will also examine the antisocial behaviour in some EU countries such as Spain, Finland, Germany and Hungary, aiming to cover all geographical and cultural areas of Europe to compare the measures taken to prevent it.

This 101 series is divided into the following six chapters of content:

  1. Antisocial Behaviour as a Form of Criminality

  2. Incivilities from a Sociocultural Perspective

  3. Incivilities from a Gender and Urbanisation Point of View

  4. Migration and Politics about Antisocial Behaviour

  5. Hate Crimes and Antisocial Behaviour

  6. Conclusions on the Differences and Similarities across Europe

Criminal Policy and Social Control 101: Antisocial Behaviour as a Form of Criminality

In various metropolitan areas, such as Dublin, some commuter train cars often have signs encouraging people to report "antisocial behaviour". Nevertheless, this type of behaviour, as well as what is social or antisocial, may be understood differently depending on the culture or generation background —among other key factors— to which a person belongs. In the same vein, some people could consider any crime as antisocial behaviour, while for some others, from an alternative perspective, all antisocial behaviour must be considered a crime. To avoid this level of ambiguity, it is needed to inquire about the antisocial behaviour as a typified crime or offence, so the penal code —from a particular judicial system— would have already done that task of polishing the relativity.

Furthermore, taking criminological literature into account, is worth mentioning the conceptualisation challenges of antisocial behaviour, as well as the variety of its terminology, what is understood by antisocial behaviour and what is inferred by antisocial behaviour as a crime, and finally, who are its victims or what consequences this type of behaviour has among society. In a complementary analysis of the concept, it will be exposed the measures that can be adopted and what plans can be designed to prevent this type of crime within the European Union. By doing so, the European paradigm shift in this regard and its respective jurisprudence will be exposed, since it has led to cataloguing the adolescent as the only perpetrator of crimes for antisocial behaviour, extending as well this consideration to the idiosyncrasies of European society in general. This situation also leads to analyse the role of different EU institutions in charge of crime prevention and how they collaborate with its member countries and, ultimately, to a reflection on the conceptualization of antisocial behaviour as a crime and the consequences that it commission has on the social fabric —with various proposals for the optimal collaboration between institutions for the prevention of this crime within the framework of the European Union.

Figure 1: A police agent asks for documentation to some young women lottering. Photograph by Luis López Araico (2022)

Antisocial behaviour as a concept

Most of the literature on antisocial behaviour does not focus on the criminal component classified by the penal code, but rather on the behavioural sciences as the nature of this conduct or the jurisprudential approaches to it (Herrera, 2005). For instance, bibliographical references aim at its precursors in childhood and adolescence, on which David Farrington (2005) —an emeritus professor of psychological criminology at the University of Cambridge— exposes and analyses the major early risk factors for antisocial behaviour and some intervention programmes. Besides, several explanatory theories are brought by Francisca Fariña (2003), a researcher in the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Vigo, who explores the origin of this kind of conduct through physiological, psychological and sociological factors. Additionally, the diversity of terms that have been used to describe such behaviours —exaggerated, destructive, externalising, under-control, defiant, uncivilised— reflects the variety of ways in which it can be manifested (Wicks-Nelson and Israel, 1997). One of these multiple behaviours that has been branded lately as antisocial is causing damage to certain public infrastructures, such as trees, naming as an exemplary case of how the City Council of the Spanish city of León integrated this type of conduct into its Ordinance on Citizen Coexistence and Antisocial Conduct (Gaitero, 2023). It is undeniable that all these terms refer to a demeanour that is opposite to the considered rules of coexistence, either apart from them or in contradiction with their precepts and prohibitions. Delinquency constitutes the most serious form that it can take, although not the only one, since it exclusively covers the disorders foreseen as punishable by current legislation. But, of course, there may be certain antisocial behaviours that have not been classified as criminal offences (Rovira, 2019).

To speak of crime in terms of antisocial behaviour is to circumscribe this phenomenon to the collective sphere as a way of protecting or preserving a certain model of social life. Any type of crime affects society in one way or another, which is the state must take charge of its management and ensure that the freedoms and rights of its citizens are protected. By participating in this collective realm, fellow citizens must also develop social behaviour without violating the rights and freedoms of others, therefore when talking about antisocial behaviour it refers to activities that are considered undesirable or unacceptable according to conventional norms and practices (Uribe, 2009). The actions that we take individually as members of society play a role in sustaining and maintaining coexistence or disturbing it, altering its climate and harmony, which is why it is conceivable that exist both prosocial behaviours and antisocial behaviours. Despite the fact that literature does not dwell much on the definition of this crime, this kind of behaviour is defined simply as a set of conduct that violates established rules or laws (Justicia, 2006). This might be the definition of any crime if it ascribes to its etymological meaning, but for a behaviour to be antisocial it has to be surrounded by a “social”, a public space (Uribe, 2009). Therefore, antisocial behaviour encompasses a set of practices, actions or even speeches that have as their purpose the wilful disturbance of order and social coexistence (Rovira, 2019). Antisocial behaviour comprises a type of crime whose victim is not a particular individual or group but the society as a whole.

Figure 2: Information about antisocial behaviour and how to report it. Felixstowe Town Council (2021)

Conclusively, it takes careful observation for a behaviour to be branded as antisocial, attending to the multiple conceptions around this term. In this sense, antisocial behaviour itself does not comprehend a crime; it encompasses a ramification of various offense that must be examined in detail to determine whether or not they constitute a crime. Such practices can hinder the regeneration of disadvantaged areas and create an environment in which crime is consolidated, undermining the sense of security and the responsibility that is required for people to participate in their communities, but this is also an important area to focus on from a prevention perspective.

The role of the European Union in the implementation of prevention measures for antisocial behaviour

As stated above, most of the literature only identifies adolescents as principal perpetrators of this crime (Farrington, 2005; Fariña, 2003; Herrera, 2005), which results in a difficult task to find a bibliography which contemplates society in general as a possible perpetrator of antisocial behaviour —therefore intended to prevent it. In several member countries of the European Union, this type of conduct has likewise spread into adult society and, like any type of crime, there are special programs for its prevention by various EU institutions (Di Ronco, 2016). From an adult-centred perspective, it is taken for granted that the adult is already "socialized" —for the simple fact of being an adult, by exceeding the age limit after youth—; therefore, they could not commit any type of antisocial behaviour. However, this conception undergoes a paradigm shift once it effectively covers all age groups in society at large regarding the possibility of committing a crime due to antisocial behaviour. Evidence suggests that models in the EU, for instance, have been influenced by other Anglo-Saxon countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand (Cunneen, 2008). The first country to include this type of crime associated with adulthood was Ireland, whose Part 11 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 provides that criminal proceedings may be brought in this country against adults who engage in antisocial behaviour (Irish Statue Book, 2006).

Figure 3: Warning sign against antisocial behaviour at King's Cross Station, London. Photograph by Stuart Axe (2014)

Recent academic literature on European crime control policy focuses on examining crime prevention strategies in the EU and its interest in petty crime, everyday crime and antisocial behaviour (Baker, 2010; Kerezsi, 2014). For this reason, it is relevant to examine the evolution of the European crime prevention strategy in relation to antisocial behaviour due to the volume of research which shows that the local adoption of policies and mechanisms for the prevention and punishment of antisocial behaviour is taking place in many European countries (Di Ronco, 2014; Peršak, 2016). As proof of this, in 2001 the European Union Council established the European Crime Prevention Network (EUCPN), whose objective is to develop crime prevention at the EU level supporting initiatives and activities at both national and local levels (Di Ronco, 2016). It is interesting to note the definition of crime proposed by these two institutions, which states a reference to antisocial behaviour as a conduct "that, without necessarily being a criminal offence, can, due to its cumulative effect, generate a climate of tension and insecurity" (European Commission, 2000). Concerns about social problems are clearly emphasized in this definition since the EU also gives importance to referring criminological issues on factors not only related to the crime itself but also to public opinion, citizen insecurity or quality of life (Crawford, 2009). Other EU reports on crime prevention have also highlighted the idea that there are links between insecurity and crime, as well as between antisocial behaviour and other more dangerous forms of crime such as assault (Di Ronco, 2016). From another angle, even the very implementation of prevention measures can lead to a greater feeling of insecurity, also stimulated by the media or some advertising campaigns. Putting Spain as a case example, purchases of burglar alarms have skyrocketed following news of an increase in the number of squatting cases (Giménez, 2022).

According to Adam Crawford (2009), Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Leeds, there is a growing interest in petty crime and anti-social behaviour by the EU, reflecting common concerns among member countries that require an EU response to strengthen their national and local security. In Crawford's work Crime Prevention Policies in Comparative Perspective, an analysis of jurisdictions and the internationalization of theories of crime prevention and community safety, he also argued that these policies referred to antisocial behaviour and sub-criminal activities —not considered crimes per se but still producing disturbance towards society— provoke feelings of insecurity based on a preconceived logic of “defining deviance up” according to which behaviour previously considered “normal” or tolerated, such as excessive noise in the public space, is then qualified as deviant. In the same sense, Di Ronco's work Inspecting the European crime prevention strategy towards incivilities (2016) suggests that the effectiveness of these policies is not preventive but based on a "security mindset" that bursts with a "top-down" approach, and it has legitimised the use of coercive measures to penalise minor public order disturbances as well as antisocial behaviours since these policies tend to target the lowest classes of society as possible perpetrators. These reasonings thus help to explain how the scope of both the definition of antisocial behaviour and the de facto powers of the state have been widened to include the whole society in its possible commission, not just young people.

Figure 4: Sign encouraging to report antisocial behaviour. Parish Council (n.d.)

As an institution, the EU can design programs specifically to prevent crime and anti-social behaviour, but each member state must implement these programs independently and adapt them to their specific circumstances in order to be successful. To do this, both organizations need to work together and share resources, knowledge and prevention programs. The EUCPN, in collaboration with the European Commission, recognizes member states as key actors responsible for crime prevention (European Commission, 2010) since they are competent to adopt and strengthen various national policies that contribute to crime prevention, and not only limited to the sphere of criminal or police law but also extending the idea of prevention to social policy, education or urban planning. This is due to the understanding that these actors carry out prevention activities that are developed and implemented at the "base level" or at local or community level (European Commission, 2004). Member state competencies and actions in this field are, in turn, supported at the EU level by promoting cooperation and networking between European, national and local authorities (Di Ronco, 2016).

Due to this limited competence in prevention, the EU has not developed a preventive strategy based on local measures against crime and antisocial behaviour. Rather, strategies are being promoted that focus on supporting and implementing stronger national crime prevention policies and cooperation between member states, national authorities and the European Union. Through recommendations and legislation, EU institutions have provided local authorities with ideas on how to strengthen their local fight against crime and antisocial behaviour, for example, by strengthening their social policies or by adopting programs aimed at the regeneration of the urban environment. More importantly, many of the EU-funded projects have been awarded over the years to improve crime prevention at a local level (Di Ronco, 2016). Given the proximity that local actors have with crime, they are the most appropriate to prevent crime —that is, its spaces, perpetrators and victims— effectively since they can adapt national crime prevention strategies depending on their needs and the conflicts in their locality. However, the fact that local authorities are better prepared to devise strategies and mechanisms for the prevention of crime in their geographic areas does not necessarily mean that they cannot implement preventive measures recommended by national or EU institutions. As a result, the European Union's competencies in local crime prevention are largely limited since its capacity for action is reduced to promoting cooperation between the member states and the EU rather than cooperation between it and local authorities. Nevertheless, the EUCPN has worked to promote a certain level of cooperation with and between local authorities. The network has pursued this goal by making available information on best practices and model examples in local crime prevention through its online knowledge centre, collected through its national contact points (Di Ronco, 2016).

Figure 5: Types of antisocial behaviour according to AARDVARC (n.d.)

Regarding some of the concrete measures, the EU institutions place particular emphasis on the need for local authorities to reduce or eliminate the structural —criminogenic— conditions of socioeconomic deprivation that affect the population of some degraded urban areas, such as the development of an educational system aimed at preventing crime at an early age or the injection of economic resources for these areas to improve public and leisure facilities (Committee of the Regions, 2007). In addition, it has been underlined the need to manipulate the contextual possibilities of urban planning in specific areas which are conducive to criminal activities and create a sense of insecurity (European Commission, 2009). Other measures are being considered in relation to crime prevention due to antisocial behaviour, with a particular emphasis on education and an urge to promote programs against discrimination, calling for support for local and regional organisations and social partners working in the same areas that deal with the fight against verbal and physical hate through multicultural education (Committee of the Regions, 2022).


In summary, it is important to first emphasise that not all subversive acts should be criminalized, but only those that endanger peaceful coexistence and are contrary to the normal development of society, allowing both freedom and rights of citizens to be enjoyed to the fullest extent and without conflict. Failure to do so risks limiting or undermining the fundamental rights and freedoms of certain individuals or groups, often already marginalized and stigmatized. For as some scholars, such as Cambridge Crime Institute researcher Elizabeth Burney have rightly pointed out, if this is serious and persistent, it undermines the exercise of individual rights and freedoms and affects the quality of life (Burney, 2009). Groups and local authorities with decision-making power may find non-criminal conduct alarming, even if it is harmless. An example of this type of behaviour is young people loitering in public places, whose presence has been prevented in many localities through the imposition of fines and, as in the case of the United Kingdom and Belgium, by adopting curfews and orders prohibiting their presence at certain times and in certain places (Di Ronco, 2016).

Figure 6: A sign in a train encouraging to report antisocial behaviour, Dublín. Photograph by Lucas López (2023)

It is concluded that a local approach is necessary for the prevention of antisocial behaviour since its very meaning varies according to the sociocultural domain in which it occurs. Likewise, it is the local organizations and agencies responsible for investigating and preventing crimes, and, in turn, public opinion, who know best about the nature of these acts, and if they are causing societal harm or how to prevent it. However, this is not inconsistent with the acceptance and consideration of recommendations by macro-level organizations such as the EU; hence cooperation between both micro and macro institutions through the exchange of knowledge, practice and prevention techniques is critical to fostering effective prevention of crimes related to antisocial behaviour. The EUCPN can offer an adequate institutional framework to consolidate relations between the EU and the relevant local authorities, as well as cooperation between local actors, benefiting local crime prevention action against antisocial acts through the design, implementation and evaluation of crime prevention programs. Given this limitation on the part of the EU to act on crime prevention at the local level, there is a need to focus on the specific cases of the member states and the prevention measures that each one takes against crime related to antisocial behaviours.

Bibliographical References

Baker, E. (2010) Governing Through Crime: the Case of the European Union. European Journal of Criminology, 7 (3), 187-213.

Burney, E. (2009) Making People Behave: Anti-Social Behaviour, Politics and Policy. Routledge.

European Commission. (2000) Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament ‘The prevention of crime in the European Union. Reflection on common guidelines and proposals for Community financial support’. COM/2000/0786 final.

European Commission. (2004) Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament ‘Crime prevention in the European Union’. COM/2004/0165 final.

European Commission. (2010) Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on ‘Justice, freedom and security in Europe since 2005: an evaluation of The Hague programme and action plan — An extended Report on the evaluation of the Hague Programme’. COM(2010) 263 final.

Committee of the Regions. (2007) Opinion of the Committee of the Regions on ‘Housing and regional policy’. OJ C 146 of 30.6.2007.

Committee of the Regions. (2022) Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on A more inclusive and protective Europe; extending the list of EU crimes to hate speech and hate crime. COM(2021) 777 final

Crawford, A. (2009) Crime Prevention Policies in Comparative Perspective. Willan Publishing.

Cunneen, J. (2008) Tackling anti-social behaviour: international problems, indigenous solutions. Centre for Housing Research. University of Limerick.

Di Ronco, A. (2014) Regulating street prostitution as a public nuisance in the 'culture of consumption': A comparative analysis between Birmingham, Brussels and Milan. Maklu.

Di Ronco, A. (2016). Inspecting the European crime prevention strategy towards incivilities. Crime Prevention & Community Safety, 18 (2), 141–160.

Fariña, F., & Arce, R. (2003). Avances en torno al comportamiento antisocial, evaluación y tratamiento. Ministerio de trabajo y asuntos sociales.

Farrington, D. (2005). Childhood origins of Antisocial Behavior. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 12, 177-190.

Gaitero, A. (2023) León equipara a los puteros con conductas antisociales como dañar los árboles . Diario de León.

Giménez, J. (2022) Ocupación: la mentira más rentable de las empresas de alarmas. El Salto.

Herrera, D. & Morales, H. (2005). Comportamiento antisocial durante la adolescencia: teoría, investigación y programas de prevención. Revista de Psicología, 23 (2), 201-247.

Hömqvist, M. (2004) Risk assessments and public order disturbances: New European guidelines for the use of force? Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, 5 (1), 4-26.

Irish Statue Book. (2006) Criminal Justice Act 2006. Number 26 of 2006.

Justicia, F., Benítez, J. L., Pichardo, M. C., Fernández, E., García, T. & Fernández, M. (2006). Aproximación a un nuevo modelo explicativo del comportamiento antisocial. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 4 (2), 131-150.

Kerezsi, K. (2014) Is there such a thing as a European crime control policy?. The Routledge Handbook of European Criminology. Routledge.

Peršak, N. (2014) Norms, harms and disorder at the border: Legitimacy of criminal law intervention through the lens of criminalisation theory. Ashgate.

Rovira, I. (2019) Conducta antisocial: qué es, factores de riesgo y trastornos asociados. SIJUFOR.

Uribe, S.N. (2009) El delito como conducta antisocial: la defensa de la sociedad. Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias Políticas y Jurídicas de la Institución Universitaria de Envigado. Asignatura: Derecho, Subjetividad y Criminología.

Wicks-Nelson, R. & Israel, A. C. (1997) Behavior disorders of childhood. Prentice Hall/Pearson Education.

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Lucas López Sosa

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