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How to prevent alcohol-related tragedies

With the spate of recent public assaults throughout Sydney, alcohol is receiving increasing public blame for instances of violence and assault.

However, there is an inherent risk in placing such blame on substance abuse. The more we allow it, the more offenders will keep relying on it and the more they will avoid facing up to the real reasons for such behaviour.

When asking offenders why they committed a certain act, the immediate response is often to shirk responsibility on the basis of intoxication. It is used as an excuse time and time again. Psychologists provide further justification by describing how alcohol inhibits the ability to control ''primal urges''. All we are doing by concentrating on alcohol and ''primal urges'' is normalising violent and abusive behaviour.

As NRL enforcer Russell Packer recently found out, alcohol and primal urges will never be accepted as an excuse in the eyes of the court for such actions.

Instead of pursuing a continuing obsession to find justifications for bouts of violence and aggression, the focus should be on minimising the number of potential offenders on the streets.

Licensed premises are heavily regulated and tightly controlled by law. Although licensed premises could be doing more to protect their patrons, they often are the safest places to drink. These areas are controlled by legislation governing the sale of alcohol and if they breach this legislation, licensees are held accountable, face hefty fines and business-killing litigation.

Unfortunately, the big issue is with individuals attempting to bypass the regulations (and avoid the expense of alcohol) by ''pre-loading'', and getting drunk before they arrive at a venue. If they are rightly denied entry, they end up roaming the streets. They become the problem of the police, not to mention innocent people passing by.

There is a solution that should be palatable for all, and that is greater exercise of the discretion by the police to issue firstly a warning to move on and then an on-the-spot fine for public drunkenness. Such fines can be up to $480, and would act as a serious deterrent for many individuals.

Civil rights campaigners will argue that this will place the homeless and other vulnerable people at risk, but some faith has to be put in the police to exercise the appropriate discretion. The police know it is not the homeless and the vulnerable that are causing the harm.

The potential revenue generated from these fines would be significant and could be used to fund greater support for emergency wards, improved prevention education to save lives, and a stronger police presence. Statistically, given the number of people that will congregate in the entertainment districts, there will always be a few criminals who will offend, no matter what preventive measures are put in place.

To achieve safer streets and safer cities, blame must be taken away from alcohol and substance abuse. Efforts should be focused on addressing the real cause of violent offenders' behaviours, and opportunities for reform that exist with venues, police forces and law-making bodies.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: January 26, 2014.

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