Most of us are aware that very little rehabilitation occurs in prison, so naturally, alternatives to incarceration can be a good thing in the long run. One initiative to cut down on alcohol-fuelled crime and the rising prison population is the alcohol detection tag, also known as the ‘sobriety bracelet’.
Sobriety bracelets have already been used in America for many years, and have reportedly helped to cut crime in some states by up to 14%. They have mainly been used on drink drivers, and most famously on Hollywood star Lindsay Lohan after she failed to show up for her probation hearing following a drink driving conviction in 2007.
The UK has now commenced trials of the bracelets in Northamptonshire, London and Cheshire. Northamptonshire gives offenders an option to wear the bracelet for a period of time up to 120 days, rather than face another more serious type of punishment. Anyone who continues to drink while using the device is reported and brought before a judge who must decide whether to remove them from the program and impose a harsher penalty.
The devices are primarily aimed at binge-drinkers, and can be used for those who commit alcohol-related crimes other than drink driving, including assaults and malicious damage.
How do they work?
The sobriety bracelet contains an electronic tag which tests the amount of alcohol released in the wearer’s sweat. It automatically samples perspiration every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day.
Despite being known as ‘bracelets’, the devices are normally worn around the ankle. They are said to be sensitive enough to detect even a mouthful of alcohol. This information is then sent off to a base station, where it is downloaded and checked. The authorities are normally notified if a person’s blood alcohol content reaches 0.02.
Are the bracelets successful?
Wayne County, Michigan, is one place that trialled the bracelets as part of an early release scheme for inmates. It reported that the program was surprisingly effective.
Out of the 975 people who were fitted with the device, only 16% touched alcohol during the time they were fitted. The devices also proved to be inexpensive – around $8 per day, compared to the costs of keeping a person in the county prison, $70.
However, a state-level trial in Michigan had a lower success rate, with only 32% using alcohol while wearing the device.
The Northamptonshire trial began mid-way through last year, and was extended in December for another six months. It will conclude shortly.
The first man in London to wear the device was Augustine “Nana” Apraku, a 24-year-old father of two. He donned on the bracelet after pleading guilty to using abusive language and provoking unlawful violence while drunk on a night out on the town.
Apraku says “I am happy not to drink for 80 days… I don’t want to have to go through this again so I think it is a good idea”, although he complains that being unable to have a bath, only showers, is an inconvenience.
London candidates were initially screened, and those with significant alcohol addictions were excluded because it was seen as unrealistic and potentially dangerous to expect them to go ‘cold turkey’.
Should we have them in Australia?
It is estimated that in the UK, nearly half of all violent crime is fuelled by alcohol.
Australians also enjoy a good drink, and alcohol-fuelled crime is regularly in the media spotlight – so should sobriety bracelets be part of the solution here?
Advocates say that they are a cheap alternative to prison, highlighting the fact that our prisons are filled to bursting point. They also point out the potentially counterproductive effects of sending people to prison.
In addition to the purely economic and managerial problems which come with our large prison population, going to prison can have severe long-term psychological effects on inmates, even after they do their time. Many struggle to re-integrate into the community – finding it difficult to secure a residence, gain employment, and event reconnect with friends and family. These difficulties can increase the longer they are disconnected from society.
The flow-on effect is that there is a higher likelihood of re-offending. Keeping people out of prison and focusing on diverting them away from the criminal justice system can reduce the likelihood of being trapped in a cycle of crime – which is something that impacts on the community as a whole.
But some believe that the devices are a short-term solution at best, questioning whether they really help to address and overcome underlying issues.