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Paying for your drink

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Offenders with drink problems face US-style tagging

London’s Drunk Criminals Wear Tags That Track Sobriety

“Sobriety bracelets’ to fight crime in London”

Just a selection of some of the newspaper headlines this weekend, typically accompanied by pictures of Lindsay Lohan, reporting the latest populist schemes to tackle alcohol-related crime – tagging offenders with “sobriety bracelets”.

The bracelets monitor blood alcohol levels electronically and transmit results to a base station every 30 minutes. If offenders wearing the bracelet drink alcohol, they are liable for arrest.

The stories themselves are confusing because they mix up details for two different schemes: one in London, one in Scotland; one aimed at repeat low level offenders and one at those convicted of more serious alcohol-related crime.

Even a careful reading of Boris Johnson’s official press release fails to clarify the details of the London pilot. I have a number of concerns about the scheme:

Is it realistic to enforce instant abstinence on dependent drinkers?

Drug rehabilitation requirements allow for offenders to reduce their addiction over time, individuals are not instantly breached if they test positive.

What is the legal rationale for punishing people for drinking alcohol?

It is not illegal to drink, should we be criminalising alcohol use?

How can punishment by itself be effective?

There are no details (and certainly no funding stream) to provide alcohol treatment to help offenders stop using alcohol.

However, without clearer details, I will have to wait to explore these issues in a future post. At the moment, the lack of proper information encourages me to see the plans as more to do with the Mayor’s re-election campaign than as an effective response to alcohol-related crime. The initiative reminds me of Bori’s first ever mayoral announcement – the ban on consuming alcohol on the tube.

The press release does, however, make it clear that the scheme requires the passing of national legislation and that amendments were being made in the House of Lords last week to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill for this purpose.

One aspect of the plans which received no press coverage was the fact that offenders will be forced to pay for the testing process themselves. Again, details are lacking, but it is interested to speculate on the payment method:

Will offenders rent the sobriety bracelet on a monthly basis?

Do they only have to pay for tests that confirm they have been drinking?

Will the benefit system pay for the bracelet for the large number of alcohol-dependent offenders who are unemployed?

Or, is the scheme only open to those in work?

Can they buy the bracelet outright at the end of their order?

I definitely think there is potential for a payment by results approach…




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The bracelet itself looks like a slightly larger version of a normal electronic tag. The sensor on the tag has to be next to bare skin because the “transdermal” technology works by analysing perspiration. When alcohol is consumed, approximately 1% is not metabolised but is excreted through the skin via perspiration.

2 Responses

  1. Its always difficult to assess the merits of scheme from media mangled press releases and there is never one perfect solution for complex problems. I do think though that drinkers own views may be very different from professional opinions on the locus of control issue. A dependent drinker may value external controls such as a sobriety bracelet (even though falsely attributing power to its efficacy) if it breaks the cycle of drinking and offending and allows engagement with everyday life families or help.

  2. The term ‘sobriety bracelet’ is quaint – as if it could have belonged to the 1920s alcohol prohibition movement. It’s interesting to step aside and critically explore this ‘helpful treatment development’ within the wider context of punitive populism, the drive towards simplistic binary thinking, zero tolerance and the emergence of technology for social control.

    The so called bracelet is an electronic abstinence tag, – a development that opens the door to abuses of liberty, freedom and human rights. A development that over-simplifies and decontextualised problem drinking and subjects users to ‘scientific’ surveillance and monitoring. Abstinence not harm reduction is the focus.

    Some may find a ‘use’ -the private companies peddling the array of new testing technology will be pleased. Whatever, particular circumstances and whatever particular group of clients that such technology may be deemed possibly beneficial -you can be sure that if this technology is embraced it will be used much more widely and indeed inappropriately. Maybe in true behaviourist style they might also be able to introduce an incremental electric shock when the ‘bracelet’ detects alcohol consumption – there must be some people somewhere for whom this might save their lives -I hear them argue.

    Please, just say no.

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