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Sobriety tags: how alcohol monitoring could become the new norm

An alcohol monitoring tag used in a trial in south London. Nick Ansell/PA Archive

In a bid to crack down on alcohol-related violence, the British government is preparing a new strategy to reduce the risks associated with excessive drinking. Crime fuelled by alcohol is estimated to cost £11 billion per year in England and Wales, and 40% of all violent incidents are committed by those believed to be under the influence of alcohol.

When he was in office, London’s deputy mayor for policing, Kit Malthouse (now housing minister), scoured the world for a novel answer to such violence. And the solution he found in the US was 24/7 Sobriety.

Launched in 2005 under the direction of South Dakota’s attorney general, Larry Long, the 24/7 Sobriety Project seeks to address alcohol-related crime by compelling offenders – including those who are alcohol dependent – to a period of alcohol abstinence. Although initially designed to reduce repeat drink-driving, the programme has been expanded to target individuals arrested or convicted for other offences, including assault, domestic violence and child abuse.

Alcohol consumption is primarily monitored via a twice-daily, seven-day-a-week breathalyser testing regime. Offenders contribute to funding the project by paying US$1 for each test. For those participants who live in very rural areas, or who have transport difficulties, alcohol monitoring devices are used as an alternative monitoring method. Known colloquially as “alcohol bracelets” and “sobriety tags”, they are locked to an offender’s ankle and contain three sensors: one that samples the perspiration that is close to the skin every 30 minutes, and two anti-circumvention detector sensors that confirm proximity to the skin and skin temperature.

Some of those subject to 24/7 Sobriety are also required to have an ignition interlock device fitted in their car to prevent them driving while under the influence of alcohol. Others are mandated to wear drug patches to monitor drug use or provide random urine samples. Offenders who skip their scheduled tests or who test positive for alcohol or drug consumption are “flash incarcerated” in the county jail for 24-48 hours before reappearing in court where the same sobriety conditions are imposed.

Between 2005 and 2010, more than 17,000 South Dakotans participated in 24/7 Sobriety. During this five-year period, 3.7m breathalyser tests were undertaken, with a “blow clean” rate of 99.3%. Comparing alcohol-related public health outcomes from January 2001 to December 2010, a quasi-experimental evaluation conducted by the RAND Corporation found that the programme had reduced repeat drink-driving arrests by 12% and decreased arrests for domestic violence by 9%, at the county level. The project and its associated evaluations are ongoing. The idea has also travelled across borders in the US, with North Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska all authorising statewide 24/7 sobriety programmes.

US sobriety programmes have included breathalyser tests. Shutterstock.

London’s compulsory sobriety pilot

Inspired by South Dakota’s “promising” approach to tackling alcohol-related crime, Malthouse embarked on a campaign to introduce a 24/7 sobriety pilot in London in 2010.

At the heart of his vision was the replication of the core components of the South Dakota model, including court mandated alcohol abstinence, regular monitoring in the form of twice-daily breathaylsing, offenders paying for their testing, and flash incarceration for breaches. New parliamentary legislation was required to enable a trial to commence, yet support from the then coalition government wasn’t forthcoming.

Two years later, however, a cross-party lobbying coalition secured Alcohol Abstinence and Monitoring Requirement legislation, and in 2014 a 12-month proof-of-concept pilot was launched by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.

Due to a variety of factors, including domestic politicking, opposition from charity representatives and legal incompatibility, the London pilot was far from identical to that operating in South Dakota. Those who were alcohol dependent were explicitly excluded. Offenders were not compelled to pay for their testing, breaches were not punished by one or two nights in jail, and breathalysers were abandoned in favour of sobriety bracelets.

Still, a review published in early 2016 confirmed that 113 sobriety orders were imposed by courts in south London between July 2014 and July 2015, and that the compliance rate was 92%. These results were considered encouraging, so much so that the government part-funded the city-wide roll-out of the pilot from April 2016. By March 2018, nearly 1,200 sobriety orders had been imposed. The compliance rate was over 90%, and an early evaluation found that reoffending rates were comparable to other community penalties.

Part of a justice toolkit

The practice of mandating offenders to a period of sobriety has spread elsewhere in the UK, with the Police and Crime Commissioners for Lincolnshire, Humberside and North Yorkshire launching a two-year pilot in June 2017.

Read more: Tagging more offenders can't just be quick fix for prison numbers

In March 2018, the idea of electronically monitoring the alcohol consumption of perpetrators of domestic violence was also proposed in a consultation on the government’s Domestic Abuse Bill.

Further evaluation findings are needed before any robust claims can be made concerning the efficacy of the compulsory sobriety schemes operating in England. In addition, lessons need to be drawn from the US concerning the risks and rewards of using enforced alcohol abstinence as a domestic violence intervention, particularly in relation to the safety of victims and the provision of domestic abuse perpetrator programmes. This is something I’m currently researching.

Sobriety orders have the capacity to reduce incarceration rates, demand on the police and hospitals, and harm to victims of violence, yet still allow politicians to appear “tough on crime”. This means that they hold the potential to become important new weapons in the judiciary’s community and suspended sentencing arsenal in England and Wales.

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