Disseminating Sobriety Monitoring of Alcohol-Involved Offenders in the U.K.

I have collaborated for a number of years with the London Mayor’s Office to expand swift, certain and fair approaches to criminal justice supervision. Our team worked with Parliament to pass a law in 2012 that allow judges to mandate sobriety for alcohol-involved criminal offenders on community supervision. That law allowed us to mount a pilot in South London which has produced encouraging results: Monitored offenders, who wore a bracelet that could detect their alcohol use, were 50% more likely to complete supervision successfully than offenders receiving typical supervision.

Boris Johnson wants to roll the program out across London and the national government wants to expand it throughout the U.K. Terrific. But a word of warning to UK police commissioners and judges who have heard of the pilot and think that slapping a sensor bracelet on an alcohol-involved offender will do the trick (forgive me please for quoting a prior post):

Alcohol-sensing technology is not by itself 24/7 sobriety. The media focuses heavily on the fascinating technology involved in the alcohol-sensing bracelets that offenders will wear. But 24/7 sobriety doesn’t even require the alcohol-sensing bracelets. Indeed, most of its implementation in South Dakota was done via twice a day in person breathalyzation. Detecting alcohol use is essential for 24/7 sobriety to work but the heart of the program is the criminal justice system responding swiftly and certainly when drinking occurs.

Nick Herbert, MP, who helped us get the 24/7 sobriety law passed when he was Minister for Justice and Policing, puts his finger on the principal challenge:

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.

What this means for all the innovative judges and policy departments in the U.K. who want to do this is that making this program work will require more than technology. It also requires a systematic effort to start responding rapidly and consistently to infractions (A lot of work at first, but it gets easy quickly as the word on the street spreads that supervision requirements are taken seriously).

If you want to learn more about why this is so and to see the evidence behind these programs, my talk at Policy Exchange is online here.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.