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Alcohol misuse by young offenders must be seen and treated as a public health issue, rather than purely a criminal justice matter. That’s the verdict of a report released by charity Alcohol Concern into the common links between young people who commit crimes and their attitude to drinking.

The review, Alcohol in the System, was carried out with funding from Trust for London, with researchers working for 12 months on the project. London-based participants aged between 11 and 19 had previously entered the criminal justice system and used alcohol; they outlined their experience through focus groups and questionnaires. 

One respondent said: “All of my arrests were connected to drinking alcohol on at least nine separate occasions. I guess it either gave me false confidence or made me do stupid things ‘cos I wasn’t thinking straight.”

Replacement paternal role models

Out of a core group of 20 young people, 15 of whom were male, the majority said they had begun drinking alongside older men, to whom they had gravitated to due to a lack of a paternal role model. 

As one participant explained: “My dad was not around (so) I used to hang out with older people who treated me like one of them, like an adult, so I joined in with them. This included drinking.”

The links between alcohol and youth offending are clearly documented. According to the Prisoner Crime Reduction Survey 2014, 41 per cent of young offenders say they were drinking at the time of their offence. 

For the participants in the Alcohol Concern research, entering the criminal justice system at such a young age is a worry. All of them said they regretted their offences, and feared that their past would limit their life outcomes. One participant expressed concern about an uncertain future where “your past does not go away”. 

Prevention rather than cure

As a result of its research, the charity has recommended a system of prevention rather than cure. This includes providing training on alcohol issues for youth workers, school nurses and teachers with pastoral support roles. It also suggests that Personal, Social, Health and Economic education is mandatory in all schools. 

For those young people who do offend, there should be “more effective and vigorous screening for alcohol in all assessments”, the report continues. Problematic drinking use in custody suites should be identified, while a peer court in London should be trialled for low level offences, including those related to alcohol. 

“Young people must have opportunities to learn about the risks associated with alcohol misuse and more health and social options made available to (them), keeping them outside of the criminal justice system and improving their life chances,” the review states.
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