Drug addicts who turn to petty crime such as shoplifting should be spared prison, a Government review has recommended.
Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs warns that too many drug users are “cycling in and out” of prison without being rehabilitated or their abuse being treated effectively.
She said the Government should use alternatives to prison such as community sentences with treatment orders that can help lesser offenders guilty of crimes such as low-level thefts or criminal damage.
Her review, commissioned by Sajid Javid when he was the Home Secretary, revealed the drugs market is driving most of the nation’s crimes with half of all homicides and half of acquisitive crimes linked to drugs.
People with serious drug addiction occupy one in three prison places.
But Dame Carol said: “Rarely are prison sentences a restorative experience. Our prisons are overcrowded, with limited meaningful activity, drugs easily available, and insufficient treatment.
‘Costly cycle of addiction and offending’
“Discharge brings little hope of an alternative way of life. Diversions from prison, and meaningful aftercare, have both been severely diminished and this trend must be reversed to break the costly cycle of addiction and offending.”
The Ministry of Justice’s white paper committed to greater use of “diversion” schemes where an offender agrees to undergo treatment and community service in return for avoiding jail – but can be sent to prison if they breach the order.
But Dame Carol said it needed to be put into action now, with some £550 million in extra funding for drug treatment within the next five years to boost treatment services.
She also warned that too many offenders were being released from jail without the appropriate support which meant they returned to crime.
Dame Carol recommended that all prisoners on release should have ID, a bank account and the ability to claim benefits while those with drug problems should also get support in the community so they continue with their treatment.
Her review estimated there were 300,000 opiate or crack cocaine users in England, and around one million people using cocaine per year. It also determined the illicit drugs market in the UK is worth £9.4 billion a year, but costs society more than double that figure.
If health considerations, the cost of crime and societal impacts are combined, the total cost of illegal drugs is £19 billion annually.
She recommended that drug addiction should be treated as a chronic health condition like diabetes, hypertension or rheumatoid arthritis because it required long-term follow-up.
“Discharge after short-term treatment is currently used as a measure of success, but should be stopped, as it ignores the fundamental relapsing and remitting nature of the condition,” said Dame Carol.
Focus on ‘middle-class’ cocaine users
She warned that society could no longer turn a blind eye to the scale of the problem – and particularly the emerging threat from cocaine among middle-class users who did not believe they had a drug problem.
“A million people use powder cocaine each year and the market is worth around £2 billion,” she said.
“The vast majority of users do not see themselves as having a drug problem and they are unlikely to come forward for treatment.
“However, they are causing considerable harm to others through the supply chain, both here and abroad. This is a difficult group to influence but, as the Covid pandemic has so clearly shown, behavioural and attitudinal shifts in health behaviour are possible.
“We need to invest now in an innovation fund to test out which marketing and behavioural interventions could work in the UK, building on evidence from abroad.”
The Government said it would be setting up a new drugs unit to help end illegal drug-related illness and deaths and that it would consider her recommendations before presenting its response on “what urgent action can be taken".