Alcohol-fuelled crime is estimated to cost £11 billion each year in England and Wales, and 40% of all violent incidents are committed by those believed to be under the influence of alcohol. Consequently, the government is investigating new strategies to reduce the risks associated with excessive drinking. Sobriety tagging in the USA is one such method being evaluated, writes Laura Bainbridge, an Associate Lecturer and Research Associate at the University of York.
Continuous alcohol monitoring
Launched in 2005 in South Dakota, the 24/7 Sobriety Project sought to tackle alcohol-related crime by compelling offenders (including those who were alcohol dependent) to a period of alcohol abstinence. Alcohol monitoring devices, known colloquially as ‘alcohol bracelets’, ‘alcohol tags’ and ‘sobriety tags’, were locked to an offender’s ankle to sample the perspiration close to the skin every 30 minutes to measure for alcohol consumption. Some participants of the 24/7 Sobriety scheme were also required to have an ignition interlock device fitted in their car to prevent them driving while under the influence of alcohol. Others were required to wear drug patches to monitor drug use or provide random urine samples. Offenders who skipped their scheduled drug tests or alcohol testing – or who tested positive for alcohol or drug consumption – were ‘flash incarcerated’ in the county jail for 1–2 days before reappearing in court where the same sobriety conditions were imposed.
Between 2005 and 2010, more than 17,000 South Dakotans participated in 24/7 Sobriety Project. During this 5-year period, repeat drink-driving arrests had been cut by 12% and arrests for domestic violence were down by 9%. The idea has also expanded across the USA, with North Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska all authorising state-wide 24/7 sobriety programmes.
Alcohol testing in London
Inspired by South Dakota’s approach to tackling alcohol-related crime, a 24/7 sobriety pilot was introduced in London in 2014. Unlike the US trial, those who were alcohol dependent were explicitly excluded. Offenders were not punished by one or two nights in jail, but sobriety bracelets were included.
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%. By March 2018, nearly 1200 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.
Since then, 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 2-year pilot in June 2017. 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.
“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’”, says Laura Bainbridge. “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.”