Jailing addicts fails to make them quit drugs

Home Office study says offenders continue to use banned substances after their release from prison
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The Independent Online

Jailing and punishing drug abusers does little to help offenders kick their long-term habits, a controversial Home Office study has suggested.

Jailing and punishing drug abusers does little to help offenders kick their long-term habits, a controversial Home Office study has suggested.

Half of the inmates questioned who took part in prison-based treatment schemes took drugs the day they were released from jail. The report, published yesterday, also found that drug abuse does not automatically trigger a life of crime.

The findings challenge many widely held beliefs and question the Government's increasingly tough approach in dealing with heavy drug users.

The growing use of drug referral schemes was praised by the researchers, but they warned that some of the projects were being "derailed" by lack of funding and resources.

On the issue of problem drug users the report concludes: "...there is little evidence that conviction and punishment does much to reduce their drug use. By contrast there is good evidence that intervening with help and treatment for offenders at various stages in the criminal justice process can substantially reduce drug use and drug-related crime."

Professor Mike Hough, the research director of the study, Doing Justice to Treatment - Referring Offenders to Drug Services, added yesterday: "Locking up problem drug users gives a temporary respite. But if they don't get effective treatment on release they will resume a drug career."

Researchers who examined the records of about 2,400 drug-related offenders found that on average the amount spent per week on drugs fell from £400 to less than £100 within nine months of joining one of the prevention schemes. Before referral to a drugs scheme the addicts' most popular methods of funding their habits were shoplifting (55 per cent), selling drugs (34 per cent) and burglary (32 per cent).

In England and Wales there are an estimated 130,000 "problem drug users" who spend about £1bn a year between them on drugs. Members of the South Bank University's criminal policy research unit evaluated various arrest and probation referral schemes, and prison-based work in south London, Brighton and Derby. The schemes offer a range of treatments including counselling and help in breaking drug dependency.

Almost half of the inmates who took part in schemes while serving their sentence said they were still using drugs, mainly cannabis, once they were let out of jail. "Though optimistic about their intentions to stop using drugs on release, half of those previously imprisoned had used on the day of release," said the report.

The study added: "This research calls into question the simple view that drug use draws people into a life of crime." It argued that most of the drug users questioned became career criminals long before their drug use spiralled out of control, rather than the other way around. "The majority then embarked on lengthy parallel drug and crime careers."

The Home Office is piloting drug treatment testing orders, in which criminals caught committing repeat offences to fund their drug habits are referred to treatment schemes rather than locked up. The offenders are regularly tested for drugs. Anyone found to have taken illegal substances is returned to court.