20 August 2010

Something wicked this way comes…

The proposals by Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor of London for a new and robust approach to sobriety enforcement for problem drinkers was reported in the media but has received little comment.

The model promoted by Malthouse is based on a scheme in the States. I remember first becoming aware of it during an episode of CSI Miami which featured an alcohol-detecting leg bracelet, which would identify if the wearer had consumed alcohol, and automatically send a message (e.g. to a Blackberry) informing authorities that the wearer had consumed alcohol, where, and when.

A quick search highlighted that not only did the technology exist, but it was being used extensively. The SCRAM system States including Florida, South Dakota and Michigan were amongst those in the US adopting the technology which came to market in 2003.

Malthouse proposed a system of punitive enforcement of abstinence. His model included:
- a sobriety requirement
- 24 hour incarceration for people breaching the requirement, as evidenced by the detection tag
- self-financing by people required to take part in the scheme.

The proposals as outlined by Malthouse couldn’t come in to power as outlined – they would need legislative changes that, fortunately, fall outside the powers of either the London Assembly or the Metropolitan Police. While ‘alcohol asbos’ introduced in August 2009 can impose restrictions on buying alcohol or drinking in public, they don’t enforce sobriety and as such wouldn’t as they currently stand be suitable for Malthouse’s plans.

Likewise Drug Abstinence orders, as they currently stand, relate only to Class A drugs and so wouldn’t fit with Kit’s ideas.

The use of alcohol-detection bracelet systems in the UK hasn’t yet been approved. This, however, is probably less of an obstacle. The use of drug-testing equipment is a growing and hugely lucrative business and there is every reason to believe that a constant testing system which is worn by users will be adopted at some stage in the UK.

At this stage, the system detects ethanol excreted through the skin, but does not work with other drugs. The Guardian article reports “The structure of the programme is being adapted to include drug abusers,” but at this time there have been no announcements that the technology has been successfully adapted to detect drugs of abuse transdermally. While ion-track technology (e.g. Itemizer machines) can indicate contact with controlled drugs, this is markedly different to proving intake, which, at this time requires more invasive procedures such as oral swabs, blood or urine testing. Even the most recent developments, such as proposed roadside drug-driving tests are based on saliva testing.

But it is the third aspect of Malthouse’s proposals which are the most interesting and should ring the most alarm bells – the adoption of “offender pay” systems in the UK. A number of US states, including Indiana, Oregon and Texas have adopted some elements of an “offender pays” system whereby a proportion of the subjects earnings are deducted to pay for the cost of alcohol monitoring units, and associated staff costs.

The costs of these are typically applied on a sliding scale depending on earnings, but in most situations allow the scheme not only to break even, but even generate a small return.

And this is the point where the schemes become most worrying – because they create an incentive firstly to get more people on the scheme and secondly to keep them on the scheme. One hundred people on the scheme, each generating a $5 surplus per day for the scheme - $182,000 a year.

It is easy to see the appeal of introducing offender-pay schemes in the UK – especially when we have seen proposed cuts to the Department of Justice which will radically affect the management of offenders in the community.

Although Malthouse may be keen to take forward measures such as these radical plans for tackling alcohol-related disorder, he can’t do it without the support of the Government. While Boris and Malthouse may have effectively gained political control over the Metropolitan Police, even this won’t give them the resources and legal powers required for such a change of offender management. What will be critical is how much power and influence Boris and Malthouse have within the coalition Government and the extent to which policies which fall further to the right will find a willing ear at least for pilot programmes within the capital.

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