Boris orders sobriety


Boris Johnson has today launched a really interesting initiative: a compulsory sobriety trial in South London which aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending. People committing alcohol-related offences will be required to remain sober for a period of up to four months, enforced with electronically monitored tags that can detect if they have been drinking. All credit to the Mayor who, with his Deputy Kit Malthouse, lobbied hard for legislation to allow for the introduction of a new sentencing power, the Alcohol Abstinence Monitoring Requirement, to allow sobriety orders to be introduced. Despite considerable Whitehall resistance to the idea, we finally secured the necessary change in the law in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

The sobriety pilot is based on a model from South Dakota in the US where, according to the Mayor's Office for Policing & Crime (MOPAC), the benefits include reducing recidivism, reducing the number of people going into prison and therefore the cost of prisons, and allowing offenders to remain with their families and in employment.

MOPAC states that a 24/7 enforced sobriety scheme is now used as a sentencing tool in several US states. Between 2005 and 2010 over 13,000 offenders had been through the programme, amounting to 2.4 million tests, with a 99.6 per cent pass rate. Over 54 per cent were totally compliant during the entire term of their sentence and recidivism rates were less than half of non-sobriety offenders over three years. The prison population fell by 14 per cent.

'Compulsory sobriety' has, however, never been tried in the UK before. This trial aims to test how the courts use the new orders, how agencies work together to provide the support around tagging, the effectiveness of the tags themselves and compliance rates.

Professor Keith Humphreys, a former White House Drugs Advisor who has advised City Hall on the project, talked persuasively about the scheme on the Today programme this morning. You can listen to his interview here (2h44m in) and read the BBC news online report here.

A few quick thoughts:

1. This shows how technology can transform the fight against crime. GPS tags now make smart curfew requirements and the close monitoring of offenders possible. Now tags can detect the use of alcohol and drugs. But we've been slow to exploit this new technology.

2. We need to unlock local innovation to allow creative new solutions in criminal justice. It's no accident that this scheme has been championed, and is now being piloted, by the Mayor, not a minister.

3. Far from encouraging local innovation, central government acts as a brake on it. It took months of relentless lobbying to persuade the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to pass the simple legislation to allow the pilots, since when they have moved at a glacial pace. The Home Office has at least devolved power to elected Police & Crime Commissioners, but the MoJ is instinctively centralist. If central government won't devolve power to an elected mayor who represents 8 million people, who will they trust? There needs to be a profound cultural change in central government to permit proper localism.

4. The key principle in disposals like this is certainty: offenders need to know that a breach will result in instant and decisive penalty. Our criminal justice system resists such practice. The pilot's weakness is that it could take weeks for action to be brought against offenders who drink while tagged. If an offender breaches the sobriety order, they will first have to be returned to court where further sanctions can be imposed. Imprisonment is only likely to result from persistent non-compliance. This isn't swift and sure justice, but neither is it the Mayor's fault - it's a fundamental weakness in our system of probation which needs fixing.

5. Opinion polling for the GLA in 2011 found that sobriety orders were popular with the public (well over two thirds supported the idea). Doubtless some will disagree. I recall the horror of a prominent politician, partial to a shandy, on being told that an electronic device might be used to monitor someone's alcohol consumption. And I wonder how long it will be before the civil libertarians complain that sobriety tags are an egregious breach of human rights ....