If you were listening to the wireless this morning you might have heard the delightfully self-satisfied tones of Kit Malthouse, the deputy mayor of London, on the Today programme.
He was touting a bonkers new scheme by which drinkers in London who fall foul of the law would be breathalysed or otherwise tested for booze twice a day for prolonged periods of time and, if they failed said tests, could be sent to jail. “It is not just punitive but corrective,” he said. For which, read, nannying and bullying.
Andrew Brown skewers the idea over at the Daily Telegraph:
This is surely one more instance of politicians wanting to micromanage the behaviour of an unruly “underclass”. No one will be surprised to learn that the state of South Dakota has already tried it. After all, America is an even more divided society than we are in Britain. They don’t seem to mind having a harsh and brutalising criminal justice system as long as it keeps the criminal classes under control.
For myself, I find there’s something unpleasant – invasive, demeaning and bossy – about Mr Malthouse’s idea. And besides, what evidence is there that it would actually reduce criminal behaviour or drunkenness in the long term? I notice that the prison population in South Dakota has dropped by 14 per cent as a result of the scheme. But isn’t the reason for this mainly that the offenders have been shifted onto daily testing as an alternative to custody?
There’s no doubt booze is the one single biggest aggravator of crime, and violence most troublingly. Some drugs lead the user into a state of woozy pacifism – not booze. Booze makes violent people more aggressive still. The authorities have got to do something so the rest of us may live lives free of disruption and fear. But why can’t they punish offences properly? If you physically damage and terrify another person you should receive a severe punishment.
To which I'd add that with schemes like this, you're setting people up to fail – forcing them to take such tests twice daily, potentially – as Malthouse smugly boasted – for years, you're simply delaying the time they struggle before failing and winding up inside anyway, complete with public disgrace from the testing regime and no better chance of improving things in the future. This is precisely why probation so often fails (as I appreciate from my years at the Bar). I note that Malthouse was up against a chap who had a set of statistics and examples of better, less bullying alternative treatments which Malthouse simply couldn't answer.
As Brown puts it, it is better
to impose clear, meaningful punishments and leave it up to the individual to make the choice on the basis of consequences, rather than this micromanagement of behaviour which removes free will and is rather totalitarian in style. Think of how you teach children good behaviour: discipline is a matter of encouraging the child to exercise free will in a responsible way as they learn that bad behaviour has consequences: that’s what growing up is.
That is to say, better to treat adults like adults and let them make their own decisions and take the consequences of their actions rather than treating adults like children, administering purity tests for something that is lawful and which can in moderation constitute a rational choice for improving one's quality of life. If someone's in prison, he's in prison. If someone's out, stop trying these ridiculous extra ties on life (especially for trivial offences).
As he stressed throughout the interview, Malthouse likes the idea because it’s cheap – the criminal pays for the tests himself. That is an inadequate reason for the creation of a new, disproportionately heavy-handed, nannying system which permits the state to intrude into the lives of people at large yet again.
Finally, this is just another way of hedging in alcohol in public life per se. It starts with things that are hard to disagree with like heavier punishments for drink driving, then bans on public transport, then the increasingly widespread alcohol free zones, then "awareness campaigns" that disapprove of alcohol consumption, then state controls over prices, then this. Just ask smokers…
By Alex Deane