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The Incarceration of Drug Offenders: An Overview

SUMMARY

In 2005, the Beckley Foundation Drug Policy Programme (BFDPP) published Incarceration of drug offenders: costs and impacts. In this briefing paper, we argued that most governments make strong statements about the need to maintain, and often increase, police activity and penal sanctions for drug users. This approach, it was claimed, is based on the idea that strong enforcement, and widespread incarceration, will deter potential users and dealers from becoming involved in the illegal drug market. Now as then, relatively few countries actually follow through on such rhetoric – arrest and incarceration rates for drug users are comparatively low in many countries in relation to the total number of users, and the often quoted maximum sentences are rarely, if ever, used. Nonetheless, penal institutions around the world are becoming increasingly populated by drug offenders. The fact that this has had only a marginal and/or temporary impact upon the scale of the illicit drug market, and also generates many significant financial and collateral costs, has led increasing numbers of observers to regard the situation as constituting a global prison crisis. In its 2007 Annual Report the International Narcotics Control Board felt it necessary to devote a chapter to “The Principle of proportionality and drug-related offences.” Among other things, the Board concluded that governments should consider widening the range of non-custodial options for drug related offences by illicit drug users. While this intervention from the Board is most welcome, it should be recalled that the recommendation was made within an international legal framework where a penal approach is strongly encouraged, particularly by the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The UN drug control system remains ambivalent in its attitude to punitive measures for drugs offences, and continues to invest rhetorical resources in viewing the issue primarily in terms of crime rather than public health. In this year when the High Level Segment to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs will set the course of international drug policy for at least the next decade, the BFDPP, in partnership with the International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College London, revisits the topic of the incarceration of drug offenders. Here we provide an overview of some of the available incarceration data from around the world and bring together much contemporary research on the topic. A great deal of the discussion concerns one of the most enthusiastic supporters of incarceration as a drug prevention measure. However, we suggest that the results of policy within the United States should be used as evidence to encourage other member states not to follow this route, and we call for an adjustment of the UN system to make it easier for them to find other ways of managing the problem.