Enforced alcohol abstinence: does it reduce reoffending?

Do we know if court enforced alcohol abstinence works?

There has been intense focus on illicit drugs and associated violence in crime policy in recent years. However, alcohol is used to a greater degree and implicated in many more crimes, especially those of violence. Courts are left to sentence intoxicated offenders accordingly. In England and Wales, courts may make use of Alcohol Treatment Requirements (‘treatment requirements’) and/or Alcohol Abstinence and Monitoring Requirements (‘abstinence requirements’) as part of a community sentence, depending on the nature of the drinking and offending.  

Alcohol treatment requirements require an offender to attend alcohol dependency treatment (which can be residential or non-residential) as part of their Community or Suspended Sentence Order. This is appropriate where the offender is dependent on alcohol, and they must consent to this. In contrast, abstinence requirements are not suitable for those dependent on alcohol. Rather, these require offenders to abstain from alcohol for a fixed period (not exceeding 120 days) as part of a Community or Suspended Sentence Order. These can be used for non-dependent drinkers, where the consumption of alcohol is an element of the offence committed or a contributing factor in its commission.

Compliance with abstinence requirements can be monitored using devices placed on the skin that measure the alcohol content in sweat: alcohol monitoring tags. These tags are backed up with the threat of further court hearings, fines, or imprisonment. They have made headlines recently as they have also been made available for those leaving prison who are 'known to reoffend after drinking'.

Despite the rapid adoption of abstinence requirements, there has been no evaluation as to whether these reduce reoffending long term. Their continued roll-out is based on research demonstrating high levels of compliance with abstinence requirements – in the form of sobriety. However, there is limited evidence about whether their use reduces longer term reoffending, despite this being their primary objective.

I plan to address this evidence gap with my research to better understand how alcohol treatment and abstinence requirements are being used. This is to further understand who is receiving them (in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender), the type of offences they are receiving them for, and their impact on reoffending. For example, I will consider whether those given such requirements complete these successfully, and whether they reoffend less than those who are not given such requirements for similar offences.

Given the considerable social and economic costs associated with alcohol-related crime, the project’s insights will contribute to our understanding of how to effectively respond to this problem.

Informing policy and practice

Alcohol abstinence requirements are now also available for those leaving prison (Alcohol Monitoring on Licence) in England and Wales. Given the current political appetite for these requirements, my study is particularly timely as it will help us understand more about the use and efficacy of court-enforced alcohol treatment or abstinence for reducing reoffending.

Indeed, my study aligns with several of the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ)’s Areas of Research Interest, such as how they might help "reduce rates of reoffending and improve life chances", increase the range of alternatives to custody, and protect the public from harm.

The study will also have broader appeal to ongoing violence reduction work, as the 2019/20 Crime Survey for England and Wales estimates suggest around two-fifths of all violent incidents reported are alcohol-related.


Read more about Dr Carly Lightowlers’ project.

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