Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Criminal Justice Alliance (DP057)

The Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) is a coalition of 64 organisations—including campaigning charities, voluntary sector service providers, staff associations and trade unions—involved in policy and practice across the criminal justice system.1 We work for a fairer, more effective and efficient criminal justice system.

We have addressed only the issues which are of concern to the broad CJA membership. In addition, several of our members have submitted individual responses to the inquiry which address the questions in greater detail. These include: Transform Drug Policy Foundation; DrugScope, Release and Rapt.


In 2010, 9,693 people were sentenced to immediate custody for a drug offence, compared with 8,186 just three years previously, in 2007, representing an increase of almost 20%.2 It is well known that prison is ineffective at rehabilitating offenders and reducing reoffending—in 2009, 48.5% of ex-prisoners, and 59.4% of those serving sentences of 12 months or less were convicted of a further offence within a year of release3—this is particularly the case for those who are drug dependent, many of whom will be sentenced for drug offences. The increase in recent years in the number of those sentenced to custody for drug offences should, therefore, be a real cause for concern.

Drug and alcohol use is extremely common among offenders: 63% of sentenced male prisoners and 39% of female sentenced prisoners admit to hazardous drinking prior to entering prison, with half of these having a severe alcohol dependency, and up to 55% of people entering prison are problematic drug users. Access to evidence-based drug and alcohol treatment is effective in reducing harm and cutting offending and reoffending. However, while there is some excellent work going on in many prisons, the criminal justice system is still failing to rehabilitate too many offenders with addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Drugs in Prisons

Many of those in prison are drug dependent, and for these individuals there is limited access to appropriate treatment within the prison estate. Prison is, by-and-large, an inappropriate setting in which to deliver drug treatment programmes4 and while work to provide equivalence of care in prisons with that provided in the community is welcome, the UK Drug Policy Commission has argued that prison drug services frequently fall short of even minimum standards.5 Overall, as the UK Drug Policy Commission concluded, “custodial sentences may frequently do more harm than good. By creating or exacerbating problems such as housing, employment and family relationships and increasing health risks such as infection from blood-borne viruses, the chances of successful long-term outcomes are further reduced. Enforced detoxification without adequate follow-up support also increases the risk of relapse, overdose and death, particularly on release.”6 Unsurprisingly, in the light of this analysis, 75% of prisoners saying they had a drug problem before custody go on to reoffend within a year of release.7

In addition, short prison sentences for drug users make structured drug treatment programmes difficult to implement (the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse says that 12 weeks is the minimum time for effective treatment of most addicts), while at the same time short sentences tend to exacerbate many of the problems linked to drug and alcohol dependency, such as mental health issues and homelessness.

Alcohol treatment within the criminal justice system is particularly limited in scope and effectiveness. There are very few prisons which provide intensive accredited alcohol treatment programmes in England and Wales, with no dedicated funding available within the system, and a requirement to attend alcohol treatment is rarely given as part of a community sentence, despite being an available option. Alcohol services in prison and the community are in urgent need of attention and investment.

Finally, many prisoners with drug addictions also have mental health problems and prisons have very limited provision for dual diagnosis. The Centre for Mental Health has argued that “there is a big gap in dual diagnosis services in prisons and a lack of co-ordination between different teams.”8 A later study reported that mental health and substance misuse services recognised the need to work closely together, but largely failed to do so.9

Sentencing Considerations

The CJA strongly endorses a review of sentencing for possession offences, lower level supply and production offences. In order to satisfy the demands of both proportionality and effectiveness, we believe that custody should never be available for possession offences, and we would also recommend against imprisonment for lower level supply and production offences.

Possession offences

In 2010, just under 1,200 people were sentenced to immediate custody for possession offences.10 The CJA does not believe that custody can ever be an appropriate sentence for an offence of possession. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some offenders are sentenced to custody because the courts believe that they will receive treatment for a drug addiction much faster in prison than if they were given a community penalty. This is a clear misuse of resources and, quite simply, a wholly inappropriate use of prison.

Supply offences A number of organisations—including DrugScope, the UK’s leading independent centre of expertise on drugs and drug use and a member of the CJA—have argued for a review of the law of social supply for many years. In the meantime, we believe that more should be done to ensure that in cases that relate to social supply, the offender does not receive a sentence that would be more appropriate for a genuinely commercial supplier.

“Drug Mules”

The recent Sentencing Council’s draft guideline on drug offences acknowledges that drug “mules” are often involved in the offence as a result of naivety or undue pressure; they are, in the Council’s words, often “poor, disadvantaged and motivated primarily by need rather than by financial gain”. As such, we firmly believe that custodial sentences are entirely disproportionate and wholly inappropriate. Additionally, retaining custody as a disposal for such individuals is unlikely to have any deterrent effect. Most drug “mules” are very unlikely to be aware of the scale of punishment in the UK—Hibiscus, an organisation that works with female foreign national prisoners, has reported that potential couriers are often informed that, if caught, they will simply be deported.11 There is also no empirical evidence to support the efficacy of deterrence in sentencing.12 The last major review of sentencing, the Halliday Report, examined this issue in 2001, concluding that: “The evidence, though limited in this area, provides no basis for making a causal connection between variations in sentence severity, and differences in deterrent effects.”13

January 2012

1 Although the Criminal Justice Alliance works closely with its members, this response should not be seen to represent the views of each individual member organisation. A full list of our members is available at:

2 Ministry of Justice (2011) Criminal justice statistics: quarterly update to December 2010, London: Ministry of Justice.

3 Ministry of Justice (2011) Adult reconvictions: Results from the 2009 cohort, London: Ministry of Justice.

4 This is not to say that there are not some excellent programmes within prisons. For example, RAPT’s abstinence-based model, developed along 12-Step lines in nine English prisons, has been shown to achieve significant and sustained reductions in drug use and offending. The programme achieved a 29% reduction in the number of ex-prisoners reoffending; and for every 100 individuals the RAPt programme saves £6.3 million on re-sentencing and re-incarceration.

5 UK Drug Policy Commission (2008) Reducing drug use, reducing reoffending: Are programmes for problem drug-using offenders in the UK supported by the evidence? London: UK Drug Policy Commission.

6 p 14: UK Drug Policy Commission (2008) Reducing drug use, reducing reoffending: Are programmes for problem drug-using offenders in the UK supported by the evidence? London: UK Drug Policy Commission.

7 May, C Sharma, N and Stewart, D (2008) Factors linked to reoffending: a one-year follow-up of prisoners who took part in the Resettlement Surveys 2001, 2003 and 2004, London: Ministry of Justice.

8 p 5: Centre for Mental Health (2007) Mental health care in prisons, London: Centre for Mental Health.

9 Durcan, G (2008) From the Inside: Experiences of prison mental health care, London: Centre for Mental Health.

10 Ministry of Justice (2011) Criminal justice statistics in England and Wales, supplementary tables (volume 5, all courts)—available at http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/statistics-and-data/criminal-justice/criminal-justice-statistics.htm

11 Heaven, O (2009) “Long sentences for drug mules were never going to act as a deterrent” in Guardian, 14 May (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/14/crime-drugs-smuggling-mules).

12 Ashworth, A (2010) Sentencing and criminal justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

13 p 128: Halliday, J (2001) Making Punishments Work: A Review of the Sentencing Framework for England and Wales, London: Home Office.

Prepared 8th December 2012