The Conservative Party has announced its intention, if they should win the general election, to give judges the power to use Alcohol Abstinence Orders as an alternative to imprisonment for alcohol related crimes.
The Order would be available at a judge’s discretion for the disposal of common assault, and criminal damage offences which are committed whilst under the influence of alcohol. The Order will require the offender to wear a sobriety bracelet for a period most commonly between 60 and 90 days, but not exceeding a maximum of 120 days. The bracelet, whilst worn, monitors for alcohol every 30 minutes by gaining the relevant information from perspiration excreted by the wearer. The data is then sent to a central hub where it is downloaded and reviewed by officials.
Breach of the Order may lead to a fine, or a custodial sentence. It is not yet clear how the penalty for breach of the Order will operate. If the fine or custodial sentence is imposed as a form of re-sentencing for the original offence, then it can arguably be justified as an escalation in punishment due to the ineffectiveness of the original sanction. One could even argue that the offender has escaped sanction altogether, as the punishment behind the Alcohol Abstinence Order is the prohibition of their consumption of alcohol. If that is breached by the consumption of alcohol the original sanction is void.
If however, breach of the Order is an offence in its own right, like breach of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, then the Order criminalises the consumption of alcohol for certain individuals who have committed a previous alcohol assisted crime.
This is problematic on two grounds: the consumption of alcohol is not, in isolation, a criminal offence; and to punish an individual more severely for committing an act which, in the absence of the Order, is not criminal, assumes that the link between the consumption of alcohol and their subsequent criminal behaviour is so strong, they should be punished, presumably on the grounds of wilful recklessness, and denies the drinker the capacity for behavioural autonomy.
The construction of the legislation and manner in which a breach of an Alcohol Abstinence Order is dealt with, is of vital importance, not in the pragmatic outcome of such circumstances; whether it is a new offence or a re-sentencing for the previous holds little significance to the outcome, but it does matter enormously when one has to explain why the new sentence has been imposed.
Sobriety bracelets are currently being trialled in London, Cheshire, and Northamptonshire, although the Conservative Party has not felt it necessary to wait for the findings of those trials to make it a manifesto commitment for the coming election.
Deborah Orr of The Guardian newspaper has been rather critical of the announcement. Let me be clear, she is not critical of the idea, but believes it is being used as a distraction, and that it is certainly unworthy of David Cameron’s political fanfare announcement.
It may seem an unusual pledge to write into one’s manifesto, as Deborah Orr points out, there is likely to be little opposition from opposing Parties, but in politics it is so often the Party who announces a policy first who can claim credit for it. Regardless of whether the policy will have cross-Party support, surely the matter of importance is whether the policy is likely to work and be of benefit to society, and I wonder if the announcement had come from the Labour Party, whether it would have been met with the same degree of cynicism and derision.
The Alcohol Abstinence Order’s implementation in the UK is backed by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe who claims that between 80 and 90 per cent of night-time arrests made by the Metropolitan Police are associated with excessive alcohol consumption.
The Home Office envisage that 5,000 offenders each year would be required to wear a sobriety bracelet at an estimated cost of £15 million, still cheaper than the cost of custody. It would also ease the strain on an overcrowded prison system, which has been highlighted once again this week following a large number of deaths in custody in the past 20 months, and the unnecessary imprisonment of some people with mental health problems diverting resources from those who have to be in the criminal justice system.
Evidence from the USA indicates that the policy is likely to be effective. It is suggested that Alcohol Abstinence Orders have reduced re-offending in some States by up to 14 per cent.
When one is a well-behaved and unproblematic member of society until they overindulge and behave in a manner contrary to this, it certainly seems a viable alternative to the harmful effects of imprisonment.
The matter is of particular interest when faced with those who are aware of how alcohol may have a derogatory effect on their behaviour but take no wilful action to prevent them from engaging in alcohol-fuel criminality. In such circumstances a measure which directly addresses the cause of their behaviour, albeit for a limited time, provides a far more promising opportunity for reformation than incarceration.
If only this is to be the start of a trend whereby policy is driven by proposals to tackle the identifiable causes of offending behaviour, rather than see who can punish those who offend more harshly, there may be a tangible shift in the prospects of rehabilitation.