Drug addicts 'should not be locked up'

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Too many minor criminals with drug problems are being jailed and then receive poor treatment in prison, a damning report warns today.

The UK Drug Policy Commission said some even take fatal overdoses after their release because of a lack of support. The influential think-tank also said that routine drug-testing for lesser offences, which was introduced five years ago, is proving counter-productive.

Its warnings follow the disclosure that heroin and other opiates were now used more widely in jails than cannabis, with up to one in six inmates in some prisons regularly taking class A substances.

About 125,000 people in England and Wales are thought to be problem drug users and drug-related crime costs an estimated £13.5bn a year. Between one-third and one-half of offenders sentenced to jail are users of class A drugs.

The commission said community sentences would be more appropriate for most problem drug users than jails which are already struggling to cope with record numbers. It concluded: "Custodial sentences may frequently do more harm than good."

Addicts risked losing their homes and jobs when they were locked up and found their family relationships coming under great strain. They also faced the danger of picking up diseases such as HIV from infected needles.

The think-tank noted estimates that one in every 200 addicts who inject heroin died from overdoses within a fortnight of being freed from jail. It said: "Enforced detoxification without adequate follow-up support increases the risk of relapse, overdose and death, particularly in release."

It said the numbers undergoing detoxification in jail were significant, but warned it was often not matched by good-quality aftercare.

The commission called for a fresh look at the policy which requires testing upon arrest for such offences as robbery, burglary, handling stolen goods, fraud and begging.

It said the practice was "likely to be inefficient and could be harmful" as it was targeted at "less problematic" users who were in danger of getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

Dame Ruth Runciman, the commission's chairwoman, said: "Community sentences are likely to be more beneficial than short prison sentences for the treatment and rehabilitation of problem drug-using offenders."

She added: "Despite some welcome improvements and an increase in investment, the standard of healthcare and support for prisoners with drug problems falls well below acceptable minimum standards in too many prisons."

David Howarth, a Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, said: "This report rightly highlights the load imposed by drug users on our over-burdened penal system. Instead of sending ever-increasing numbers of people to prison, the Government should focus on ordering drug treatment for non-serious offenders. For these offenders, effective drug treatment outside prison will have a far greater impact on reducing future crime than short-term prison sentences."

David Hanson, the Prisons minister, said: "The report recognises the challenges facing the criminal justice system in addressing the problems caused by drug-misusers, the difficulty in treating a chronic relapsing condition and acknowledges improvements made in recent years, including significant increases in resources for drug treatment leading to increased numbers being treated."

*Almost two in every thousand of the population are in detention in the UK, according to figures compiled by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College London. There are now 108,504 people in prison, child secure units, immigration removal centres or detained under the Mental Health Act.