Opinion: If we remove prison as an option for drugs possession, savings must go to boost probation service

Wormwood Scrubs prison - Some rights reserved by TheGooglyAs a magistrate in North London, I welcome the recent Liberal Democrat proposal to remove prison as a sentencing option for drug possession. I have seen so many defendants who are in and out of prison, never breaking the depressing cycle of re-offending. However to keep drug addicts out of prison we will need to make sure that the alternatives work.

Currently it is very rare that first time offenders accused of drug possession would be sent to prison With first time offenders, the person will usually have a community sentence, sometimes accompanied by a drug rehabilitation order, where they receive treatment for their addiction.

In some cases the drug rehabilitation order will work but in other cases, the addict will not be able to complete the order, and will re-offend – often a theft offence to fund the habit which they cannot break. For other offenders, they will complete the initial drug rehabilitation order but will relapse later and reoffend.

It is this reoffending that puts addicts in prison – as magistrates sentencing guidelines ratchet up sentencing for repeated offences, and for breaching community orders.

Getting people off drugs is not easy and requires qualified professionals who have the experience and persistence to work over long periods with addicts. This of course is not cheap. I would be concerned that the recent changes to probation where low and medium risk cases are being outsourced to private providers will make effective drug treatment harder to provide. Whilst drug users are usually not high risk offenders, they are often not straightforward, particularly when mental illness is also involved.

Any policy to remove prison as an option needs to redirect savings to probation work.  Furthermore magistrates sentencing guidelines need to be sufficiently flexible to let offenders fail, sometimes more than once.


* Cara Jenkinson is Vice-Chair of Haringey Liberal Democrats and PPC for Enfield North

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  • the addict will not be able to complete the order

    What does ‘not be able to’ mean? What is stopping them from completing the order? Is it that they don’t actually want to stop doing drugs, and are only attending because they have been compelled to by a court?

  • Richard Wingfield 18th Aug '14 - 4:43pm

    “Not able to” means that the addiction is so difficult to overcome or has been such a significant part of a person’s life that they find it extremely difficult to comply with the strict terms of the particular order they are under. It has nothing whatsoever to do with whether they “actually want to stop doing drugs or not” and your comments suggests a complete misunderstanding (not to mention a lack of sympathy) for individuals struggling with addiction. Look at how many people want to stop smoking but still end up having a cigarette, not because they aren’t determined to stop, but because the addiction is so powerful that resisting it is too difficult.

    For a drug addict, it can be even harder. Imagine you’re unemployed and all of your friends also take drugs. You decide you want to quit, but not only do you have the mental addiction, but you have nothing to do during the day to take your mind off it, you are forced to stay away from all of your friends because they might tempt you into taking it, and you might have no family, colleagues, etc. who are supporting you. In such circumstances, it’s a near-miracle if someone is able to come off drugs at their first attempt, and the system – as Cara Jenkinson eloquently argues – should recognise that.

  • Glenn Andrews 18th Aug '14 - 4:52pm

    “With first time offenders, the person will usually have a community sentence, sometimes accompanied by a drug rehabilitation order, where they receive treatment for their addiction.”

    Given the overwhelming majority of people who are in possession of recreational narcotics don’t actually have an addiction (unless you downgrade addiction to having a liking for something – as opposed to the effects of a proper physical addiction) then by not completing the order is hardly a crime in any real sense of the word.

    Still it is a step in the direction.

  • Look at how many people want to stop smoking but still end up having a cigarette, not because they aren’t determined to stop, but because the addiction is so powerful that resisting it is too difficult

    They may say they are determined to stop, but in that case their actions show that they clearly did not want to stop, or at least, did not want to stop more than they wanted another cigarette.

    It’s what people do that reveals what they really want, not what they say (cf, for example, the husband who says he loves his wife but his temper is so powerful that resisting the urge to hit her is too difficult).

  • ‘Its what people do that reveals what they really want’

    That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. I got up at 6.30am today to go to work. Didn’t want to. Ok not the best example, but if I didn’t I wouldn’t earn any money, and if I don’t have any money I can’t feed my cat, I don’t have a choice.

    To make a decision on something you have to have a choice, when you are addicted to something that choice gets stripped away from you.

  • Cara Jenkinson 19th Aug '14 - 8:16am

    One of the real challenges is when drug users don’t want treatment – courts can only include a drug rehabilitation requirement in the sentence if the offender is willing to undertake the treatment. In this situation, the hope is that if we give a community order rather than a prison sentence that probation can work with them and try and persuade them to consider treatment. This is unlikely to happen in prison as staff shortages and overcrowding (see today’s news) means that good quality rehabilitation work with prisoners is in short supply.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 20th Aug '14 - 1:24pm

    thank you for a thoughtful article,. good points.
    I am part way through Leaf Fielding’s “To live outside the law”. Prison didn’t seem to do much for him

  • Cara Jenkinson 21st Aug '14 - 12:45pm

    Thanks Suzanne and to others for the comments on the nature of drug addiction

  • I agree fully that the issue of tackling drug addiction needs more funding, but would extend this to include any form of substance misuse, ie alcohol and so called legal highs. Further, I would argue that more emphasis should be placed on maintaining recovery. I volunteer in a Centre for addicts-drugs and alcohol- who are in recovery . Once the statutory services have wihdrawn, ie when the person is substance free, there is no little support available to help keep them that way. We are one of very few organisations who provide this service and we are a registered charity, surviving day to day by applying for grants and on donations.

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