Last summer the United Kingdom launched its first compulsory “alcohol tag” trial, and earlier this week Mayor of London Boris Johnson announced that the monitoring devices will soon be rolled out across the capital. Over the past year, the City of London’s sobriety pilot has generated an animated and occasionally heated debate across the pond about whether 24/7 alcohol monitoring is a valuable tool to stem alcohol-related crime or an invasion of personal privacy.
The UK is where the US was 12 years ago, when the first Continuous Alcohol Monitoring (CAM) bracelets were put to use in the state of Michigan, and the US media began to cover what was then a revolutionary technology. Some questioned the government’s right to limit drinking. However, US laws and the Constitution delineate between rights and privileges, and when you’re convicted of a crime, even rights are subject to limitation (i.e., offenders convicted of felonies relinquish the right to vote). While there was what I would term minor debate (and appropriate questions) in the United States about the “Big Brother” element to 24/7 alcohol monitoring, compared to the UK over the past year, it was a whisper.
So What’s the Difference? Alcohol Misuse in the US and UK
To begin with, when you think of alcohol-related issues in the US, you think of drunk driving first. The US is a country of drivers. Outside of a few major metropolitan areas with comprehensive mass transit, in the US the car is king, making drunk driving a much more widespread problem than in the UK. Because of this, in the US the drunk-driving issue is the #1 market for CAM and the place in the judicial system with the most compelling need for Continuous Alcohol Monitoring. In addition, when CAM hit the market, the US public had already been exposed to two decades of intense social messaging about the tragedies and risks of drunk driving by MADD and other organizations. So in 2003, the US public was highly aware of the true horrors of impaired driving and more open to a little “Big Brother” supervision to tackle the problem.
In contrast, the UK has a much broader view on individual liberty and a decidedly more cautious approach toward alcohol and crime. Moreover, drinking is highly ingrained in British culture. The local pub is often the cornerstone of the community, and as Charles Nevin noted in a New York Times editorial, from Churchill to Chaucer to Cambridge, British history and society “floats on a sea of booze.” As such, to many in the UK an alcohol monitoring bracelet doesn’t just force someone off the drink—it interferes with their place in the community.
To add to the complexity, the crimes that are causing the biggest social issues in the UK—assault, property damage, domestic violence—don’t involve a car. So when you remove the public threat of debilitating injury and the gruesome deaths that result from a car and instead use the tags on people committing less “high-profile” offenses, the debate tends to refocus a bit on whether 24/7 monitoring is truly appropriate or unnecessarily invasive.
But alcohol is causing a great deal of harm in the UK. The price tag on the country’s “front line services” is astonishing, with estimates in the tens of billions of dollars each year. When you factor in prison costs, which can potentially be offset by the substantially lower cost of sobriety tags, officials in the UK feel they can no longer afford NOT to address the drinking—which everyone seems to agree is the root cause of much of the criminal behavior in the UK. And if you’re a victim of repeat, alcohol-involved domestic violence, for example, I’d wager you would think 24/7 alcohol monitoring a fair tradeoff for personal safety. (In the US, 75% of cases of domestic violence involve an offender who was drunk at the time of the offense.) In fact, many of the crimes that could make an offender in the UK subject to sobriety tag monitoring are serious, violent offenses. Whether you’re smashing a pint glass in someone’s face or kicking out car windows as you stumble home from the pub, something must be done.
A Proven Tool
Twelve years since SCRAM Continuous Alcohol Monitoring was introduced in Michigan, we now know that even small, rural jurisdictions save millions of dollars a year utilizing CAM monitoring versus incarceration. We have studies that show CAM monitoring is effective at changing future behavior for the most troubled drinking offenders (the ones who repeat their offenses). We know, based on nearly 15,000 surveys completed by SCRAM clients that 80% of them report that they benefited long-term from their CAM monitoring program. And we know that every single day, 99.4% of the individuals monitored worldwide are completely sober and compliant. No drinking, no alcohol-fueled behavior. That data and that result can only happen with CAM. What do you think?