Alcohol Tags: Doing More Harm Than Good?


Alcohol-related crimes are costly to society, both emotionally and economically. So it’s understandable why the government would seek to implement interventions aimed at reducing the burden of alcohol-related crimes. The latest idea? Alcohol tags for offenders found guilty of committing alcohol-related criminal behaviour. 

In this article, we take a look at the link between alcohol and violent crime and look at how alcohol tags might help. We’ll look at what they are, how the technology works and what the scopes and limitations are. 

We’ll also explore the research on the topic and go through the pros and cons, including a look at how alcohol tags affect the individual wearing them. The article will conclude by asking if alcohol tags can work to affect meaningful change in the long run.

Alcohol and Violent Crime

Alcohol tags, also called sobriety tags, have been developed to tackle alcohol-related crimes. The concern about alcohol’s role in crime is a valid one. By the government’s own measure, alcohol is involved in 39% of all violent crime and it is often a driver of domestic violence and unprovoked attacks. It also estimates the social and economic cost of drink-related harm is around £21.5 billion a year. 

The latest available alcohol-related violence data from the Office for National Statistics found that: 

  • Victims felt the offenders had consumed alcohol in 53% of violent incidents 
  • This rose to 64% in violent incidents between strangers 
  • 70% of violent incidents occurring in the evening or night were alcohol-related 
  • 70% of violent incidents which took place in public were alcohol-related (compared with 40% at home and 43% in the workplace) 

More recently, Public Health England carried out a national survey on alcohol-related harm to others; the first-ever national survey on this topic in England. It found that one in five adults had been harmed by the drinking of someone else in the previous year. 

In addition, 3.4% of survey respondents said they felt physically threatened, 1.9% said they had been physically assaulted and 0.7% said they were either forced or pressured into something sexual. 

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What Are Alcohol Tags?

The evidence is clear: alcohol plays a significant role when it comes to crime, especially violent crime. So can alcohol tags help? 

The premise is simple. Alcohol tags are worn by offenders found guilty of committing alcohol-driven crimes. Such offenders are given a no-alcohol order, which the tag can help enforce by monitoring sweat, which analyses for alcohol. 

The idea began as a pilot study in October 2020, when a small cohort of offenders was tagged in Wales. This was to support a new community sentencing option, the Alcohol Abstinence and Monitoring Requirement (AAMR). An AAMR is only to be used when sentencing for alcohol-related criminal behaviour and it involves a complete ban on drinking alcohol for up to 120 days. 

The government hailed the pilot study a success and continued to roll out this strategy across England. This is part of a wider £183 million expansion of electronic monitoring, which aims to see 12,000 offenders monitored by tags by 2025.

What Are the Scope and Limitations of Alcohol Tags?

According to the government, alcohol tags can be imposed by the court as part of a community order or a suspended sentence order in which: 

  • the offence, or associated offence, for which the requirement is being imposed, is alcohol-related
  • the person is not alcohol dependent or has an Alcohol Treatment Requirement (ATR) recommended or in place
  • The person is 18 years or over

For offenders released from custody whose offence and future risk are alcohol-related, an Alcohol Monitoring on License (AML) additional licence condition was introduced in Wales in November 2021 and in England in June 2022. The two licence conditions available for AML can involve:

  • Requirement for total abstinence from alcohol
  • Requirement for the offender to comply with requirements specified by their Probation Practitioner to address their alcohol needs (this will include limiting alcohol use) 

How Does the Technology Work?

The tags work by monitoring the alcohol content in the offender’s sweat. To do this effectively, it takes a sample of the person’s sweat every thirty minutes. If it detects alcohol, an alert is sent to the Probation Service. An alert is also sent if the tag detects the person wearing the tag is tampering with the tag itself. 

In the event the offender has broken their no-alcohol order, they may have to return to court for further punishment and possibly face a prison sentence. 

Limited details on the technology are available, but the government have said the monitors are accurate enough to ascertain between foods that contain low levels of alcohol and alcoholic beverages. 

What Does the Research Say?

The initial pilot scheme results were considered a success, with offenders staying sober for more than 95% of the days monitored. 

The latest report on the government’s Electronic Monitoring Statistics revealed that the scheme has gathered a significant pace, with 7,968 new alcohol monitoring orders imposed across England and Wales in the year ending 31 March 2023. This marks a big increase from the 3,621 seen in the year ending 31 March 2022. 

But what does the most recent research reveal? According to the latest data available (December 2022 – March 2023), the tags did not register a tamper or alcohol alert 97.1% of the days worn.

However, the government reporting leaves quite a few questions unanswered. For example, there are no details on whether the offenders involved had alcohol abuse or addiction issues, what their subjective experience was or any sort of follow-up on what happened post-sentence.

While it is reassuring to look at the positives, alcohol-fuelled crime is a complex issue and a more nuanced analysis of the program may have helped better understand its actual effectiveness. 

What Are the Pros and Cons of Alcohol Tags?

Pros

  • Straightforward and cost-effective to implement 
  • Allow access to wholesale monitoring 
  • Data supports short-term success (i.e. majority avoid drinking while on sentence)
  • May help certain individuals to question their relationship with alcohol 
  • May play a role in reducing alcohol-related crime

Cons

  • This could put people with alcohol abuse issues in a dangerous situation (i.e. quitting alcohol cold turkey can be dangerous and even fatal in certain scenarios)
  • This may result in more criminals (those who break violations) without addressing the underlying issue (e.g. addiction, anger management) 
  • May not affect long-term change (i.e. what happens to offenders once the tag is removed?)
  • Could induce a sense of unease and even paranoia in the wearer 

How Does Wearing a Monitoring Tag Affect the Individual?

Having your bodily fluids tracked every thirty minutes is quite an invasive intervention. It is easy to see how this could lead to certain people feeling watched, anxious and even paranoid. 

Added to that, if the individual is struggling with addiction issues, wearing an alcohol tag could put them in a difficult situation: comply and suffer withdrawal symptoms or break the order and face further punishment including the possibility of a prison sentence. If they opt to go cold turkey and don’t have the right support to enable them to go through a medically assisted detox, they could be putting their health – and even life – at risk. 

While the government states that alcohol tags should only be used when “the person is not alcohol dependent”, it’s not clear how they achieve that. In a government blog post entitled ‘A sobering success for alcohol monitoring requirements, the following anecdote is used:

“One offender stated that the tag had saved his life, as alcohol abstinence gave him a foundation to engage with intervention and reduce his anxiety. This directly improved his emotional well-being and resulted in a less chaotic lifestyle.”

Addiction is complex and given thousands of people are being ordered to wear monitoring tags, without details of how people are assessed, it is easy to see how someone with an alcohol addiction could get swept up in the system.

While of course consequences are necessary when laws are broken, we may need to take a more nuanced approach when it comes to addressing addiction. The current model means that someone struggling with alcohol abuse can either comply and bear the consequences of withdrawal or face further penalties. The end result would likely produce more criminals without actually addressing the underlying issue of addiction. In this way, as a standalone intervention, it could be argued it’s a band-aid solution. 

While alcohol monitoring may be useful in certain scenarios, a more holistic approach might be more helpful in the long run. This could mean providing the right care, such as access to medically assisted detox, to maximise the chances of sobriety in the long term and not just the short term. 

Do Alcohol Tags Work in the Long Run?

While the initial compliance rates are impressive, it would be interesting to know what happens once the sentence is over. 

In terms of people dealing with alcohol abuse issues, there is the concern of relapse. Relapse rates among people recovering from alcohol addiction can be quite high. Research has found as many as 70% of people receiving treatment for alcohol dependence relapse in the first 12 months following treatment.  While monitoring technology may well play an important role in tackling alcohol-related violent crime, it would be useful to view it as just one tool. 

As for offenders who don’t have an alcohol addiction, you have to wonder what the purpose of the tag is. In scenarios where a person isn’t addicted to alcohol, simply stopping for 120 days is not a particular hardship, as evidenced by the high compliance rates. But what is that actually achieving? And what happens after the 120 days are up and they can return to alcohol? 

The relationship between violence and alcohol is complicated. This study titled ‘The Relationship between Alcohol and Violence – Population, Contextual and Individual Research Approaches‘ looks at the complexity of this issue, but determines that alcohol can trigger violent behaviour in a wide range of contexts. Consuming alcohol doesn’t always lead to violent behaviour, however, it does lower inhibitions and impair judgement which can increase aggression and risky behaviour. 

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One research paper summed it up: “Aggression is the precursor of violence and individuals prone to aggressive behaviours are more likely to commit impulsive violent crimes, especially under the influence of alcohol.” Would stopping for 120 days really solve this issue? Or would a more holistic approach targeting the underlying aggression be more effective in the long run?

In conclusion, while alcohol tags are an interesting and novel intervention, they are unlikely to provide the complete solution to meaningfully reducing alcohol-related crimes. If the goal is to meaningfully reduce crime by helping perpetrators address their underlying problems – whether that’s alcohol addiction or anger issues – in the long run, a more comprehensive approach is likely needed. Depending on the specific issues, this could include treatment alongside monitoring, such as a medically-assisted detox, anger management tools and ongoing addiction treatment. 

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