Boris Johnson’s efforts to increase prison time served by serious sexual and violent offenders by way of a Statutory Instrument were stymied by the House of Lords. Before the election was called, the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also put paid to the other proposal to emerge from the so-called Sentencing Review- the national rollout of the Alcohol Abstinence and Monitoring Requirement (AAMR) or Sobriety Tag. This requires an offender to abstain from alcohol for up to 120 days with compliance electronically monitored. The tag worn on the ankle takes a sample of sweat every 30 minutes which is analysed for the presence of alcohol. First piloted in London when Johnson was Mayor, both the PM and his erstwhile advisers now in No 10 are enthusiastic about it.
Back in 2015 the Conservative manifesto pledged to make Sobriety Orders, reinforced by tags available to all courts in England and Wales- but it didn’t happen (and the policy was not mentioned in the 2017 manifesto). It was not until The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Commencement No. 14) Order 2019 was laid before Parliament last month that the government has sought to enable the Sobriety Tags to be imposed as part of a requirement of a community order or a suspended sentence order throughout the country.
As with the Statutory Instrument which would have increased the proportion of time served by prisoners convicted of serious crime, the Lords Committee raised concerns. Being asked to approve the programme on the basis of very limited information was “unacceptable”; it was “interesting”, but rollout was “premature”. The Committee recommended that the House press the Minister for more detail on all aspects of the plans for rollout and anticipated long-term outcomes. There was no time to do this before Parliament was dissolved so the law hasn’t changed.
The 2012 Act provided that national implementation could only happen after piloting and the Government claimed that two pilots had proved sobriety tags a success. A process and performance review of the scheme across the capital – one of four published evaluations – has reported on more than 1,000 AAMRs imposed between April 2016 and March 2018. There was a compliance rate of 94% with the tag- although compliance with the overall order of which the tag was a part was lower- a distinction about which the Lords Committee wanted clarification. More significantly, there is no data about re-offending with an analysis from the Mayor’s office almost a year late.
The evaluation of the other pilot in Humberside, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire is not due to be completed until February 2020. Despite this, the MoJ considers that it now has the information necessary to fully commence the legislation and roll out AAMR across England and Wales. Their Lordships disagreed.
It’s certain that sobriety tags will figure in the Conservative manifesto, alongside perhaps the promises of swift and certain punishment or flash incarceration made before . Whether they come to anything is of course another matter.