Lord Woolf, 60, who has a reputation as a liberal and was author of the widely praised report on the Strangeways riots, also strongly attacked government plans to get tough on crime and increase imprisonment, warning of a 'terrible mistake'.
In an address entitled 'Crime, Punishment and Rehabilitation' in London, the former Lord Justice of Appeal said: 'If the appetite for drugs can be stemmed, then so will the profits which make the trade in drugs such an attraction. Should we not at least be considering whether it would be preferable for drugs, or at least some drugs, to be lawfully available in controlled circumstances, so that it would no longer be necessary for addicts to commit crimes to feed their addiction?'
Although he did not specify which drugs, he was clearly referring to heroin, cocaine and crack. Lord Woolf's comments, one of the rare occasions when a senior figure in the criminal justice system has supported controlled legalisation, will increase public debate and were welcomed by the drug law reform lobby.
Referring to the last week's speech by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, outlining 27 new measures to tackle crime, Lord Woolf said: 'Statements are being made that . . . now is the time to get tough on crime. Such talk is short-sighted and irresponsible. The difficult option is to try to identify the underlying causes of criminal conduct and then set about tackling those causes.'
He said there was undoubted concern about the criminal justice system but it was important not to over-react: 'It would be a terrible mistake to squander resources on short-term palliatives, window dressing, which instead of making the situation better would make it worse.'
Lord Woolf mounted a strong defence of the prison reforms enacted as a result of his Strangeways report and of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, advocating punishment in the community, which he said was now being reversed, increasing the numbers being sent to prison. Overcrowding was the 'most corrosive' influence, creating the possibility of riots.
His comments came a day after 40 inmates went on the rampage at Haverigg prison in Cumbria, causing serious damage. Prison officers' leaders have also warned of the dangers of overcrowding.
Mr Howard, asked about Lord Woolf's comments, said: 'Sentencing is for the courts, not politicians . . . it is the Government's job to provide the necessary prisons to send (prisoners) to.' If the measures reduced crime, there would not be an increase in the jail population.
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