Changes in the way that offenders are supervised, along with the increased availability of alcohol, are undermining attempts to support offenders with alcohol-related problems, explain Dr Rose Broad and Dr Carly Lightowlers.
Alcohol and violence have consistently been linked in studies such as this one and this one, although no causal connection has been conclusively established. So, although alcohol plays a role in people’s use of violence, there are still questions about how to work effectively with alcohol-related offenders.
Progress has been made through successful interventions with those whose offending has been alcohol related using cognitive behavioural therapy as part of probation programmes. However, current policy developments are affecting and undermining the work of practitioners addressing alcohol-related violent crime.
The Transforming Rehabilitation agenda has changed the way in which offenders are managed in the community. The newly created Community Rehabilitation Companies will be responsible for carrying out the majority of interventions, including those related to alcohol and/or alcohol related violence. There are concerns that these new structures – which focus on market solutions, cost reductions, increased diversity of providers and partner collaboration – may be ineffective in addressing the problem. Practitioners are worried both by the underlying ideology and the practical mechanisms being adopted: in particular by Payment by Results, which may have negative implications for the management of offenders.
Another challenge for practitioners is the promotion of the ‘night-time economy’. The government’s Alcohol Strategy (2012) promotes the criminalisation of individuals for ‘irresponsible’ drinking. However, it neglects to consider that individual drinking practices are shaped by cultural tolerance and the widespread availability of alcohol. Whilst it endorses self-regulation of the alcohol industry, it suggests that growth and responsibility can exist well together. This view has been challenged.
The use of public health commissioning boards has had some success in working with alcohol-related violence in the general population. The experience of Cardiff is one example. We need to understand more about how transferable these approaches are and how they can be delivered effectively through co-ordinated commissioning structures that combine health and criminal justice interventions. An example of these types of interventions can be seen here.
Our article in the Probation Journal suggests that there are tensions between different policies related to the management of alcohol-related violence. There is a strong evidence base that recognises the effectiveness of targeted treatment with offenders who have engaged in alcohol-related violence.
The widespread availability of alcohol, its social acceptability and the promotion of alcohol consumption are all at odds with approaches that attempt to work with this group of offenders. It is difficult to suggest to someone that their drinking is a risk factor in their pattern of offending when drinking is reinforced in so many spheres of social life.
The marketisation of offender management also has potentially negative implications for working with these offenders. An example is the emphasis on Payment by Results. This only measures success on the basis of re-offending rates and so presents a barrier to motivating change, undermines therapeutic alliances and inhibits the development of effective personal relationships in probation work. Furthermore, it fails to recognise other positive outcomes, such as a reduction or cessation of alcohol consumption. Resultant benefits to an individual’s health, well-being and personal relationships are not acknowledged if their offending continues, even if it is at a less serious level.
The government’s recent Alcohol Strategy introduced a suite of sobriety measures. These include sobriety ‘bracelets’ and sobriety orders which require individuals to abstain from drinking. This is despite the lack of robust evaluation of, or support for, the efficacy of sobriety measures for alcohol-related violent offending. Whilst these are civil measures, if the orders are breached they result in criminal proceedings. This has a net-widening effect and unduly criminalises those who are guilty of disorderly behaviour when drinking.
Not only are there moral concerns associated with monitoring people in this manner, there remain questions around the morality and effectiveness of coercing people into treatment for their alcohol consumption. This approach is at odds with much of the evidence base for supporting and treating those with substance misuse problems.
The effect of these policy initiatives is that alcohol-related offenders and those whose drinking results in disorderly behaviour are increasingly drawn into a coercive framework within the criminal justice system. The marketization of criminal justice responses threatens to price out of the market smaller specialised organisations, even though these may be most adept at meeting offender’s needs.
Meanwhile, the promotion of abstinence and treatment within the criminal justice system is difficult to achieve. It battles against a cultural backdrop of widespread alcohol availability and the social acceptability of intoxication. The policy landscape is centred on the self-regulation of the alcohol industry and the prioritisation of economic growth.
Unresolved, these tensions threaten to undermine the capacity to effectively supervise alcohol-related violent offenders.