Back in 2011 I wrote a piece for Propel titled “Boris Bashes Bingers”, in which I outlined a scheme put forward by London Mayor Boris Johnson whereby drunken offenders would be subject to “sobriety orders”, and would have to report to police stations twice a day for sobriety tests to ensure their compliance. The government quite rightly refused to finance this scheme on the grounds of practicality, but Boris came back with a high-tech solution from America: a “sobriety bracelet scheme” for those convicted of serious drink-related offences who might otherwise have been sent to prison.
I expressed back then my reservations about this scheme, but then heard nothing more about it, and assumed it had either died a death or been trialled and found wanting. But not a bit of it! The scheme has been trialled in south London and two other areas – Cheshire and Northamptonshire. It works like this:
On conviction for a drink-related offence the Court orders a community sentence, but imposes a “sobriety condition”; the offender must abstain from drinking alcohol for 120 days – down from the six months that was originally envisaged. To enforce this, the offender is fitted with an ankle bracelet that can detect alcohol by measuring air and perspiration emissions from the skin every 30 minutes. Blood alcohol levels as low as 0.02% can apparently be detected, and the bracelets can tell when the alcohol was consumed and then electronically transmit that information to a monitoring station. The police are then informed that the offender has broken his “sobriety condition” and can arrest him and bring him before the court.
Boris Johnson has hailed the trial of this scheme as a success: “Sobriety tags have proved a fantastic success in helping offenders across south London to stay off the booze and avoid the circumstances under which they might reoffend.” Apparently 91% of the tagged offenders complied with the sobriety order and stayed off the booze for 120 days. This compares with only 61% of offenders who complied with traditional community service orders for alcohol-related offences.
Point proved? Not quite. Only 113 offenders were put on these tags during the 12-month trial and 9 breached the condition, leaving 104 who complied. A good result for a very small sample of people who, I suspect, were specially selected as “suitable cases for treatment”. The 61% success rate (or 39% failure rate if you prefer) for those offenders sentenced to other forms of community order is clearly a percentage of a much larger number. I can’t discover what that number is, but Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, stated recently that 80% of offences committed in London were related to alcohol. That would be at least 588,821 recorded offences then, if you believe this statement, which personally I don’t. Just what does “related to alcohol” mean?
This is a classic example of how politicians desperate for positive headlines work: hail as a “fantastic success” a scheme involving a small number of people specially selected as suitable cases for treatment, and then make an invalid comparison with a much larger group of people which represents the generality of offenders who haven’t been selected – and fail to mention that! We can tell nothing form this scheme except how base the motives of politicians are!
I am very much in favour of people being held responsible for their own misbehaviour, rather than ever-greater server liability, but I think we need to put sobriety bracelets into the context of the other measures supported by police and others for the control of the night-time economy: breathalyser tests carried out by door supervisors, ID scanners and potentially drug detection dogs. Whilst acknowledging that drunkenness and alcohol-related crime – howsoever defined – is a serious problem, it is a serious problem that all the crime surveys say is declining, so I don’t feel there is a pressing need to turn our city centres into leisure ghettos or our venues into fortresses. I want to see alcohol-related domestic violence reduced. But we surely need to incentivise people to drink out of home rather than at home if we want to achieve that.
It’s not difficult to imagine a development of this technology so that it could be applied to the operation of individual licensed premises. I can imagine the Government empowering licensing authorities to require premises in the night-time economy to provide a bracelet to every customer on a Friday and Saturday night. If the customer consumes more than, say, four units of alcohol, this is electronically communicated to a unit behind the bar, the bracelet illuminates and the customer has to leave. It’s the logical next step if you’re asking door supervisors to test for sobriety on entry. But surely I’m being paranoid, right? Surely no government is going to regulate the tick-and-tock of individual behaviour in this way? That’s precisely what people said when the smoking ban was first mooted. Watch this space.