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Connolly, Johnny (2006) Treatment-based alternatives to imprisonment. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 17, Spring 2006, pp. 18-19.

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Targeting offending problem drug users in the EU

The EMCDDA annual report 2005 includes a special issue on the use throughout the EU of alternatives sanctions to prison involving a drug treatment component, as a response to drug-related crime.1 The EMCDDA identifies a broad consensus among member states that prison is a detrimental environment for people whose offending is related to a drug addiction. Prisons are overcrowded in many countries and drugs are often widely available within prison, rendering recovery from addiction extremely difficult. Treatment in the community often offers a greater potential to improve people’s health and well-being. Also, the high cost of imprisonment relative to community-based sanctions and the potential of drug treatment in the community to have a greater impact on offending behaviour are key reasons for the development of alternative sanctions.

The EU Drugs Action Plan 2005–2008 asks member states to ‘make effective use and develop further alternatives to prison for drug abusers’.2 In Ireland, numerous policy documents have advocated the need to develop alternatives to imprisonment and to use prison as a last resort.3 The Children Act 2001 sets out a number of general principles biased towards rehabilitation and the discouragement of custody for child offenders. In a recent survey of public perceptions of crime in Ireland, nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents believed that non-custodial sanctions, such as fines and community service, would be more fitting than custodial sanctions for certain crimes.4

In most countries, problem drug users usually undergo treatment as an alternative to prison in residential drug-free treatment centres. A number of out-patient treatment programmes combined with a regulatory system such as drug-testing or electronic surveillance are also identified.

A question which arises in the context of so-called alternatives relates to the concept of net-widening, whereby the ‘number of people falling under the supervision of the criminal justice system has increased, often without reducing the number of drug users in prison’ (p. 29). The EMCDDA also points out that ‘it is not always clear from the data whether the alternatives are applied to problem drug users, or to recreational users “encouraged” to take counselling’ (p. 29). According to a report on the Irish Probation and Welfare Service prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the estimated total number of persons under supervision increased by half between 1995 and 2002, and there was a similar increase in the prison population.5 It appears therefore that, despite the broad political and public consensus supporting it, there has been little if any increase in the use of alternatives to prison relative to custodial sanctions between 1995 and 2002.

The EMCDDA reports that no comprehensive major national or European studies are available to evaluate treatment as an alternative to imprisonment. Research, it is concluded, is still too scarce and too disparate too establish what works, how, when and for whom. However, a number of lessons arising from experience to date are identified in the report. These can serve as useful guidelines upon which future initiatives can build. These include the following:

·         Legislation must be implemented in a manner that benefits both the drug user and society.

·         Knowledge about legal possibilities and their implementation and about the drug-related treatment options available is required of police, prosecution and judges.

·         Trust, co-operation and co-ordination between criminal justice, health and social service systems are essential if alternatives are to be effective. Much is needed in terms of attitudes, knowledge and practical management to facilitate resource-saving co-operation and co-ordination.

·         The route into treatment is an important indicator in predicting success. Studies have found that rates of relapse into criminality vary significantly between drug users who start treatment before having contact with prison and those who enrol in treatment after some time in prison, with evidence that retention rates are higher for those who move straight to treatment following sentencing. Treatment seems to work best if the addict is motivated and is actively and intensively approached and advised to undergo treatment. There must be good non-bureaucratic management and a reduction of waiting times.

·         Treatment services often lack sufficient resources, particularly for young people. The possibilities identified for drug treatment have increased the workload of the treatment services and this has led to delays in accessing services in some countries, and in others a ‘partial breakdown in the capacity of such services’ (p. 29).

·         Treatment potential is improved if care facilities follow clinical standards and have enough and qualified staff. Treatment staff must counter prejudice against clients referred from the criminal justice system. Staff must have sufficient training to work with such clients and keep them motivated. Treatment should be adapted to clients’ needs. There must be effective monitoring and aftercare.

·         There must be a feeling of a real threat of punishment. There needs to be good co-operation with local authorities to encourage reintegration in the community.

The main findings of the evaluation of the Irish drug court indicated that, although a number of participants continued to offend while in the programme, the rate at which participants were arrested, charged and had their bail revoked declined the longer they were in the programme.6 Similarly, a key finding of this report and of a great deal of the literature in this area is that retention in treatment is a crucial indicator of success.

1. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (2005) Annual report 2005: selected issues. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

2. European Commission (2005) EU Drugs Action Plan 2005–2008. Official Journal,C 168, 08/07/2005 p. 0001–0018.

3. Drug Misuse Research Division (2004) 2004 National Report to the EMCDDA by the Reitox National Focal Point: Ireland; new developments, trends and in-depth information on selected issues. Dublin: Health Research Board.

4. McDade P (1999) Public perception of crime in Ireland. Templemore, Co Tipperary: Garda Research Unit.

5. Comptroller and Auditor General (2004) Report on value for money examination of the Probation and Welfare Service.Dublin: Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

6. Farrell M (2002) Final evaluation of the pilot drug court. Dublin: Courts Service.

Item Type
Publication Type
Irish-related, International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Substances (not alcohol/tobacco)
Intervention Type
Crime prevention
Issue Title
Issue 17, Spring 2006
January 2006
Page Range
pp. 18-19
Health Research Board
Issue 17, Spring 2006
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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