The Commons will vote today on a new sentence of “Compulsory Sobriety” for criminals who offend when drunk. Towns and cities up and down the land desperately need this amendment to pass if they are to stand any chance of turning back the tide of Saturday night blood, vomit and crime.
Wander into any police custody suite in the evening and you can smell the cause of crime. A heady cocktail fills the air. Walk into any A&E on a Saturday night and you will smell the same acrid perfume. Our booze and violence culture is at the root of volume crime and family breakdown in much of Britain, and it’s costing us billions to clear up.
Back in the summer of 2009, David Cameron paid a visit to Hull to see the toll that alcohol related violence was taking on that city. In the subsequent WebCameron he seemed astonished at the sheer volume of cheap alcohol confiscated by the cops. Part of the solution was, the Prime Minister stated, minimum pricing for alcohol and a tightening of the licensing regime; both steps in the right direction.
Magistrates and prosecutors, like police officers and medics, see the same drunks again and again. From time to time, they are offered treatment orders, but these hardly ever stick, and they are expensive to administer. In desperation, they have to resort to prison, which is certainly punitive, but rarely corrective.
Twenty years ago, Larry Long, the chief prosecutor of Bennett County, South Dakota, had exactly the same problem. With a density of only three people per square mile, it seemed that there was little else to do in Larry’s manor other than drinking, driving, and beating each other up. Long found himself locking up the same people again and again, with little effect.
So instead of asking his local judge to incarcerate the convicted, he requested something more imaginative. People convicted of drink-driving or domestic violence were required to attend their local police station twice a day to be tested for alcohol consumption. Effectively their compulsory sobriety was both punishment and cure, and Larry was willing to undertake intensive monitoring and enforcement to ensure compliance.
If offenders passed the daily tests they remained free. If they failed, they were marched across the hall to the judge and sent straight to jail. No-shows were tracked down and subjected to the same treatment. On release, normally the next day, the testing regime would resume. Crucially the sanction for breach was immediate and certain. And to cap it all, offenders were compelled to pay for their own testing rather than being fined. As well as keeping enforcement costs down, this was the money that they would otherwise have spent on drink.
The results were startling. Something happened in the minds of people who had to choose between booze and freedom every day. In more than 90 per cent of cases they chose freedom. The figures speak for themselves. Since 2005 nearly 16,000 people have been placed on the programme and been tested 3.1 million times. The pass rate is 99.3 per cent. Jail populations have fallen across the state, in the two largest counties by more than 100 people a day, saving millions. And let’s not forget that the project is largely self-financing, as offenders have to pay for their own testing. The award winning innovation has been rigorously researched and verified, spreading to numerous other States as a result. Now we want to try compulsory sobriety in London.
The design of the sentence satisfies the three golden rules of effective justice: it is swift, certain and corrective. It avoids expensive incarceration and allows offenders to maintain employment and contact with their families. Critically, any treatment that may also be offered alongside stands a much better chance of working when alcohol is absent.
We have considered piloting the approach using other powers, most notably conditional cautions. But these cautions are voluntary, the drunk has to admit guilt on the spot and agree to comply – not a realistic option at 2am on a Saturday night. They specifically do not apply to domestic violence cases or indeed drink driving, both offences where we are keen to deploy a new sentence, and of course we can’t charge for the testing without a change in the law.
To do this properly we need primary legislation and Matthew Offord MP has kindly tabled amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill which are due for debate today.
We want to pilot the scheme aimed specifically at drink related violence and repeat drink driving, where it would be a cheaper, more proportionate and effective sentence than sending someone to prison. There is support for the proposal from across the chamber and Bernard Hogan-Howe, the new Met Commissioner, has voiced his approval too. We have even ensured the amendments are Human Rights Act-compliant.
Today, MPs have the chance to give London, Cardiff and all the other blighted town centres a new, intelligent and rigorous approach to beating the booze problem. Let's hope they take it.