Drink in the dock

The link between alcohol abuse and youth offending is only just
receiving the scrutiny it deserves, reports Anabel
Unity Sale

There were vigorous nods of agreement among professionals
working in youth justice last October when Anne Owers, the chief
inspector of prisons, acknowledged something they had known for a
long time: “Alcohol for many of the young people going to
prisons is as great a driver of their offending as

Days before Owers’ remarks, a prisons inspectorate report
into Castington young offender institution revealed that 42 per
cent of its inmates thought they would have an alcohol problem when
they were released. Given statistics like this it is hardly
surprising that the correlation between excessive alcohol
consumption and criminal behaviour is well known.

However, some believe alcohol’s role in youth offending is
sometimes overlooked. Tim Bateman, senior policy development
officer at crime reduction charity Nacro, says: “There is a
tendency when comparing drugs and alcohol together to regard drugs
as a bigger problem for young people, because adult culture accepts
drinking without looking at its results.”

If a young person is drinking cider with their friends in the park
they may be seen as “experimenting”, which might not be
the case if they were smoking crack. While one activity can be
dismissed as part of growing up, the other sounds alarm

This may be because defining an “alcohol problem” is
not easy. Richard Phillips, acting chief executive of Alcohol
Concern, says alcohol dependency problems are unusual in young
people, and that most young offenders will not need specific
alcohol detoxification treatment. Bateman adds that, unless there
is a pattern of alcohol-related offending, it can be difficult to
present the issue to a young person as a problem they need to

Although there are no official statistics on how many in the youth
justice system misuse alcohol, the Youth Justice Board’s
(YJB) head of policy for health and substance misuse, Bill
Kerslake, says alcohol is second only to cannabis among substances
consumed by young offenders.

If a young offender receives a custodial sentence, then any alcohol
misuse, if it is part of polydrug use, can be picked up by the
counselling, assessment, referral, advice and throughcare (Carat)
services. These provide low-level intervention, with the creation
of a care plan based on an offender’s specific needs. The
service operates in all prisons for all ages. From April 2005 it
will be replaced by the juvenile substance misuse service for
prisoners under 18. There are 16 substance misuse managers employed
in YOIs in England and Wales who are in the process of appointing
18 more staff.

If a young offender receives a community sentence they will be
dealt with by their council’s youth offending team. Any
alcohol or drug misuse by offenders is picked up by a performance
indicator introduced last April. Created by the YJB with the
National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, the performance
indicator dictates that a team screens all young people for all
substances, and that those with identified needs receive a
specialist assessment within five working days. If the young person
does misuse substances, they should be able to access the
appropriate treatment services within 10 working days.

Each youth offending team has a substance misuse worker who
identifies what part substances play in the life of the young
offender. This worker can devise ways to help the young person,
including directing them to specialist agencies.

Each of the four secure training centres in England has a substance
misuse manager. And the 15 local authority secure homes have
received more funding to bring in sessional workers to look at
alcohol, drug and substance misuse.

While all this activity sounds commendable, is it enough to tackle
the problem?  Kerslake is willing to admit that the focus in the
past has been on drug rather than alcohol use, while adding:
“The reality is young people use drugs and alcohol in

Phillips says: “I don’t think there is a single prison
that has adequate provision to support prisoners with alcohol
problems and it’s pretty unlikely that YOIs do

With this in mind, Alcohol Concern has recently worked with the
Prison Service to develop a best practice guide on how to manage
people who misuse alcohol. The guidance has yet to be allocated
funding to roll it out, but Phillips believes its basic premise can
be adapted by YOIs.

Addressing a young offender’s alcohol misuse when they first
enter the youth justice system is the ideal opportunity. But as
Kerslake says: “There is no point in tackling alcohol without
tackling the wider social issues, because it will have little
effect.” CC

  •  Community Care’s Back on Track campaign aims to improve
    the lot of young offenders in custody and to reduce the number of
    children and young people given custodial sentences.

good practice in sunderland

Julie Wardell manages the youth drug and alcohol project for
Sunderland Council’s social services department. Known as
Y-Dap, it comprises eight staff from education, health, social
services, a voluntary sector agency and Sunderland’s youth
offending service (YOS). This month, the team will be joined by a
dedicated trainer, funded by Sunderland primary care trust, who
will train staff in working with various professionals around a
young person’s drug and alcohol use.

Y-Dap began life in April this year and started receiving referrals
in May before being launched officially  in June. In its first
three months it saw 75 under-18 year olds, 33 of these referrals
being due to alcohol-related concerns. During 2003
Sunderland’s YOS were referred 64 young people, 21 of these
for alcohol problems.

Wardell says: “Our treatment service looks at what the young
person is drinking now – how many units a week – and
what problems this is causing them. We get them to keep an alcohol
diary, to assess whether they need to detox and to set goals. A
goal might be if they are drinking 100 units a week to get it down
to 90 the next week.”

She believes the initiative works because all staff are encouraged
to work with clients in a structured way. Young people attend Y-Dap
voluntarily and work through several specific sessions over
whatever period they need. Wardell says young people without very
complex problems tend to complete six sessions.

The project has become more young people-friendly, thanks to money
given to the scheme by Sunderland’s drug action team, which
has enabled it to buy a Playstation and a pool table. “Young
people can come here and play pool and have a chat with us at the
same time,” says Wardell.

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