Thursday, March 10, 2011

Time for a rethink on alcohol related crime

There was a particularly horrible crime reported in the CEN on 4th March.

If you can take this report of court proceedings at face value, a drunken thug standing outside a pub on Histon Road decided to pick on a passing Bangladeshi man. He shouted racist abuse, followed the victim home, punched him, smashed his front door with a brick and kicked in him the head, whilst the victim's terrified pregnant wife cowered nearby.

Parliament has passed laws to increase the severity of offences with a racial motivation, and this was already an incident of the utmost seriousness. How many years prison should such an assault merit. 5? 3? 1? 6 months?

The answer appears to be zero. The punishment for this offence was reported as just a fine, probation and a 'thinking skills' course. The perpetrator of this crime doubtless has his problems - and we need prisons resourced well enough to genuinely rehabilitate people with alcohol problems (not turn them into people with both drug and alcohol problems), but I cannot believe the laxity of the sentencing in this case - what must the poor victims think.

There have been other cases. Last April, a 16-year old on a stolen bicycle ploughed into an innocent pedestrian on Jesus Green, causing life-threatening and life changing injuries. Whilst the collision wasn't deemed to be deliberate, this was clearly no accident - it was the culmination of an evening of alcohol fuelled mayhem. The 16-year old had previously that evening assaulted another victim, leaving him unconscious, before getting on a stolen bike, riding it recklessly into the innocent victim, and then dumping the bike in the river and running off. He was already on bail for public order offences. In 'mitigation', his lawyer said his actions were  “influenced by alcohol” - and again despite the seriousness of the offences and the outcome, there was no prison sentence. What do you have to do to get sent to prison these days?

In both these cases, a common link is alcohol. It is if as soon as someone has been drinking, the courts treat them as if their personal responsibility for their actions is so severely diminished, no matter how serious the consequences of the crimes, the punishment will be negligible. This approach is utterly crazy - its no wonder we have such problems.

The police spend vast taxpayers money dealing with alcohol related anti-social behaviour. Beyond just managing consequences as they occur, with expensive overtime and disproportionate use of police time on Friday and Saturday nights, the authorities prevention approach appears to consist entirely of measures affecting all licensed premises and all drinkers the same. There are blanket bans on new licenses in some parts of the city - which the police will support by sending high ranking police and even barristers to licensing committees and licensing appeals. They support higher taxes and levies on licensed premises. This approach is unjust for responsible drinkers, and is manifestly failing to tackle the problems - a change of tack is overdue.

Lots more could be done. We need better education around alcohol for young people - how to drink responsibly, how to think through all the consequences of drinking, and how to protect both yourself and other people whilst drinking. We need better rehabilitation for people who find alcohol a problem. But it is pointless adding extra tariffs for the on-trade where the problems manifest themselves, when Supermarkets sell alcohol below cost, so people can get tanked up for pennies before hitting the town.

Unlike smoking, there is a 'safe dose' of alcohol. People who drink occasionally in moderation have lower mortality than teetotallers. It is not inevitable that someone drinking will lead to trouble - the opposite is true for most people. The authorities need to focus on those causing the trouble, and get across loud and clear that if you do get recklessly drunk and then commit offences, you are fully responsible for your actions, and will be fully held to account. The 16 year-old above who wrecked the life of an innocent cyclist shouldn't even have been drinking - how can being under the influence of alcohol in any way mitigate his offences?

Everyone should know their limits, and everyone has the choice of whether or not to get into that state. Until the authorities recognise this is a matter of personal responsibility and act accordingly, the mayhem will continue.

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