Sobering Up Services Model (1990 – present)

Over the period since 1900 a number of approaches have been adopted to manage and provide treatment to problematic users of alcohol in Western Australia (WA). The term ‘treatment’ is used loosely to refer to the broad conceptual approaches for managing problematic users in WA over the period.

However, our contemporary understanding of the term ‘treatment’ is an inaccurate characterisation of punitive practices accepted in the earlier part of the period, even though these were referred to as ‘treatment’ in official accounts of that time.


The rationale for establishing a sobering up services model, rather than a medically supervised detoxification and treatment model, as a low threshold entry to a low cost service, stems from findings of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

One of the major recommendations from the Royal Commission was that sobering up centres (SUCs) were the most effective arrangement for police to convey intoxicated people to a safe place for overnight care, as an alternative of them being detained or arrested and held in police lockups.

An understanding of the development of sobering up services requires some explanation about decriminalisation of public drunkenness, which had increasingly become used to manage problematic use of alcohol by Indigenous people in WA.

Decriminalisation of public drunkenness

The management of public drunkenness and other public offences stemming from the problematic use of alcohol has been a long-standing and difficult law enforcement issue. The reliance on law enforcement responses meant in effect responsibility for a population of individuals with many co-occurring problems, such as poor health outcomes, serious medical conditions, homelessness and mental health issues, was shifted to the criminal justice and prison systems.

In spite of concerns over some years, it was not until the revelations by the RCIADIC, that decriminalisation occurred in WA in April 1990, as a result of the Acts Amendment (Detention of Drunken Persons) Act 1989 (DDPA).

The DDPA repealed Sections 53 and 65(6) of the Police Act 1892 and added a new section, Part VA – Apprehension and detention without arrest, which set out provisions for management of drunk and intoxicated persons through a health focussed service, instead of detention in police lockups. 

The DDPA also amended Section 43 of the Police act 1892, reframing the power for police to apprehend a person who had been ‘drunk and disorderly,’ to one of police apprehending someone who was ‘conducting himself in a disorderly manner’. 

The new section in Part VA gave police three options when dealing with an intoxicated person – 

  • to detain ‘for as long as it reasonably appears to a police officer that the person remains intoxicated’ (Section 53D); or 
  • to release the intoxicated person ‘into the care of an approved hospital without him or her being required to enter into a recognisance or as a condition of an order for bail’ (Section 53H); or 
  • to release the intoxicated person into the care of some capable of taking adequate care of the person (Section 53G).

There were other provisions in the DDPA which amended the State’s child welfare legislation in relation to detaining intoxicated young people.

Another impetus for decriminalisation had been a review of the Police Act 1892 by the WA Law Reform Commission in 1992, which pinpointed a range of offences, including those concerned with vagrancy, which it recommended should be repealed, as they were seriously outdated and out of step with prevailing community standards.

The DDPA increased the penalty for the offence of ‘disorderly conduct’ in Section 54 of the Police Act 1892. As this was a much higher penalty than that of $10 (first offender) and $25 (second offender) in the repealed offence of public drunkenness (Section 53), this reform meant an intoxicated person could be exposed to a fine of up to $500 or imprisonment for up to six months, or both. 

A revised and separate legislative framework to manage intoxicated persons occurred in November 2000 when the Protective Custody Act 2000 (PCA) repealed Part VA of the Police Act 1892, to create a separate legislative framework for managing intoxicated persons, which commenced in January 2001.

The PCA expanded the range of persons who could be detained due to intoxication by a broader definition, involving the use of ‘either alcohol or a drug or a volatile or other substance capable of intoxicating a person’. 

Development of SUCs in WA

The first SUC opened in Perth in May 1990, to service the Perth inner city area, especially as it was close to the the East Perth police lock up, which at that time serviced the inner city area. Over the next few years other SUCs were progressively opened in high priority areas –

  • Port Hedland (April 1991) 
  • Halls Creek (September 1992) – closed 2011 
  • Roebourne (February 1993),
  • Fitzroy Crossing (March 1994) – closed December 2006 
  • Kalgoorlie (June 1994),
  • Wiluna (April 1996) – closed  2011
  • Kununurra (September 1996), 
  • Derby (May 1998) 
  • Broome (February 1999)
  • Midland (June 2002) – closed May 2006
  • Wyndham (December 2002), 
  • Anawim (February 2003) – closed August 2009
  • Geraldton (December 2003) – closed January 2018
  • Carnarvon (2014) – closed 2017

The original model of care of SUCs was to provide a practical focus on assisting alcohol intoxicated adults found in public places through overnight care. As SUCs are only resourced to manage clients over a short period of time, they will be discharged the next morning, with the exception of the Perth SUC, which was at that time, co-located with a detoxification unit.

The SUC model also involved the provision of a substantial meal, clean bedding and sleepwear and laundering of clothes. The rationale for a defined short stay was that this would break the negative cycle of alcohol induced harm by providing care to intoxicated persons most at risk to themselves, their families and their community.

Experience indicates the opening of a SUC could potentially encourage the associated community to develop additional services to address the use of alcohol. This could take a number of forms, such as outreach programs, community patrols, a safe house for women and children, alcohol and other drug education programs and community support for initiatives to restrict alcohol availability.

Statistical data

A series of seven Statistical Bulletins were published which detailed statistical information about the operation and utilisation of SUCs broken down by individual SUC, Indigenous status, gender, year and quarter, for the period 1990 to 2007.

Since the last report was published in 2008, limited public information was published in DAO annual reports, with only total admissions for all SUCs without any further detail or breakdowns by SUC or region.

The absorption of the DAO into the Mental Health Commission has continued the approach of not publishing statistical information about operation and utilisation of sobering up services in WA.

Statistical bulletins – Utilisation of sobering up centres

  • No. 5: Utilisation of sobering up centres, Western Australia, 1990 – 1997 [140k]
  • No. 11: Utilisation of sobering up centres, Western Australia, 1990 – 2000 [161k]
  • No. 17: Utilisation of sobering up centres, Western Australia, 1990 – 2002 [784k]
  • No. 20: Utilisation of sobering up centres, Western Australia, 1990 – 2003 [582k
  • No. 21: Utilisation of sobering up centres, Western Australia, 1990 – 2004 [780k]
  • No. 36: Utilisation of sobering up centres, Western Australia, 1990 – 2005 [644k]
  • No. 41: Utilisation of sobering up centres, Western Australia, 1990 – 2007 [659k]