Not Saussure

March 31, 2007

More on the War on Drugs

Filed under: Law, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 7:10 pm

The Guardian reports that

The former head of the prison service has warned that up to 100,000 people could be in jail by the end of the decade unless drastic and immediate action is taken by the government.The prediction from Martin Narey came as the prison population in England and Wales reached an all-time high yesterday of more than 80,300, with only four spare places left in emergency police cells anywhere in the country.

This leads Tim Worstall to note that

the Prime Minister has told us there are 100,000 habitual criminals who are responsible for the bulk of the crime. Now all we have to do is make sure that it’s the right 100,000 occupying the prison cells and we’ll have solved the problem, eh?

In fact, the PM said these 100,000 criminals were responsible for half, rather than the bulk of, all crime, so we presumably still need an awful lot more prison places, but anyway… I think the PM is being wildly over-optimistic and that, if we continue on the present course, we’ll need considerably more than 100,000 people banged up. I’ll explain why.

Sorry to go on about drugs so much at the moment, but I’ve been looking up some figures to back up my anecdotal point that drugs are involved in at least half the work of Crown Courts and even I have been a bit shaken by the results.

The recent Government paper, Security, crime and justice, tells us that ‘75,000 prisoners each year are going into prison as drug addicts’ (para 2.77). I don’t have the latest figures for how many people go into prison each year, whether or not they’re drug addicts, but I’ve found the figures for 2005, and I can’t imagine there’s been that great a change since. In that year, a total of 90,414 people received immediate custodial sentences (including 15-17 year olds and ‘young adults’ (i.e. 18–21) (Home Office Research Development Statistics; Population in Custody (detailed) (spreadsheet)).

So if that’s right, about 80% of people going into prison each year, for whatever reason, are drug addicts. Eighty percent!

And what are the plans to deal with this? According to Security, crime and justice, hidden away in the end-notes (note 33, p 100, to be precise),

The Integrated Drug Treatment System (IDTS) is being introduced in certain prisons and is aimed at boosting the quality of clinical drug treatment. By March 2008, the IDTS is expected to benefit around 24,500 offenders – with the full IDTS (that is, enhanced clinical and psycho-social (CARAT) support) in 17 prisons and enhanced clinical services in at least a further 32 establishments.

So that’s about a third of the people who go into prison with drug habits receiving the help they need, so long as they’re fortunate enough to be sent to one of the 49 establishments that provide it. There are, by the way, 125 custodial establishments for males in England and Wales (sorry about the bureaucrat-speak, but I was trying to think of a term to cover everyone, and prisons are for the over-21s) and 15 for women, so that’s just under two-thirds of the prison establishment in England and Wales that doesn’t provide appropriate treatment.

If, of course, the figures they quote include provision for Scotland and NI, as well, then the picture’s even worse.

Now, back in 2000, the Home Office commissioned a large-scale study in the drug-taking habits of prisoners. This is reported in Chapter 2 of Prisoners’ drug use and treatment: seven research studies (pdf) and the headline figures are

The main conclusions emphasise the high levels of drug use by prisoners in the year before they were in custody, together with links between drug use and patterns of offending behaviour. Nearly three-quarters had taken an illegal drug in the 12 months pre-prison; of these, over half (55%) reported that they had committed offences connected to their drug taking. The need for money to buy drugs was the most commonly cited factor. Findings of this kind lend weight to the potential value of delivering drug treatment to prisoners, before they return to the community.

I’m slightly confused by the difference between the figures in the two reports; the Home Office study found:

Almost half of the Criminality Survey respondents (47%) had used heroin, crack or cocaine in the last twelve months. Prevalence rates for each of these drugs were 31 per cent, 31 per cent and 32 per cent respectively. These are costly and addictive drugs, consumption of which has been shown in other research to be associated with a propensity to commit high levels of property crime. Of those reporting consumption of heroin in the Criminality Survey, almost all (95%) were using it at least once a month, 85 per cent were using at least four to five times in the last week, and 82 per cent were using it at least once a day. Many of those consuming heroin also reported use of other drugs. Two-thirds of heroin users (66%) were in addition consuming crack at least monthly and 43 per cent cocaine at least monthly. Cocaine and crack are powerful stimulants, which can be used to offset the depressant effect of heroin. (p 15)

This, while still a horribly large figure, isn’t anything like the 80% of the prison intake that they’re talking about now; more like 38% of the prisoners they interviewed came in with heroin habits. I suppose it may well be that prisoners were unwilling to confess to interviewers the details of their drug use for fear of what might get back to the authorities.

Be that as it may, these chaps are certainly responsible for a fair bit of crime, particularly burglaries, theft and handling:

Comparing those who reported use of any drug (including once-only use) with those who reported not using an illegal drug in the twelve months prior to prison, the former group were more likely to be convicted of burglaries, robberies, theft and handling, and drug offences. Those not using drugs were more likely to be convicted of VATP, fraud and forgery and ‘other’ offences. A similar pattern is seen when comparing those using a drug at least daily, except for those sentenced for drug offences, the majority of whom were not daily drug users. Almost half of all those using a prohibited drug on a daily basis (48%) were convicted of burglary or theft or handling. (p 16)

And this is hardly surprising, when you consider what a drugs habit costs to maintain. In the The CARAT drug service in prisons: findings from the research database (Counselling, Assessment, Referral, Advice and Throughcare, the drugs treatment programme in prisons) for 2004-5, the prisoners they were treating reported their average weekly expenditure on the main drug they were taking . This isn’t all the drugs they took, just the one they took most of; as CARAT explain — p 5 —

Of course, the weekly spend would not necessarily be confined to just these drugs. For example, those giving crack as their main drug may well have also used heroin.

Anyway, these habits had been costing the prisoners a week:

• £620 (heroin)
• £660 (cocaine)
• £1,110 (crack)
• £210 (alcohol)
• £190 (cannabis).

so it’s hardly surprising many of them turned to crime — particularly lower-level theft, robbery and domestic burglary — to fund these pricey habits.

Obviously it’s going to vary from burglary to burglary, or robbery to robbery, but the chaps I see in court usually realise £200 — £300 a burglary, if they’re lucky. That bears very little relationship to the value of the goods they make off with, of course; your £600 — £700 laptop will probably fetch about £75 or £80 cash if the burglar is lucky. So that’s around a couple of burglaries a week to maintain a habit. And, if the burglar’s unfortunate enough to get caught a third time, or if he decides to have several offences taken into consideration, he’s looking at a legal minimum sentence of three years (down to two for an immediate guilty plea), of which he’ll spend half in prison.

There are, according to today’s Independent, ‘an estimated 280,000 problem drug users in the UK, most taking heroin and crack cocaine,’ and I reckon most of them are committing serial burglaries, thefts and robberies to fund their habits, because I can’t think how else they get the money to pay for them.

Arresting the smugglers and dealers, while important, doesn’t actually do anything to solve the problem with the end-users. If anything, it exacerbates it; drugs, like anything else, follow market principles, so if the police disrupt supplies in a town by arresting the main dealer, the black-market prices from the remaining dealers rise accordingly and the addicts find they have to steal more stuff, and more frequently, to raise the money to pay for their drugs. Eventually, of course, new dealers are attracted by the higher prices in the area, and the situation stabilises.

The simple way to do something about this appalling state of affairs is, of course, to try to move drug dependency out of the ambit of the criminal law and the prison system; treat it as a social welfare and public health problem rather than primarily as a criminal one. Treat these people — give them the drugs they need, if you have to, to keep them on a maintenance dose, and forget about trying to get them off drugs until they’ve got their lives a bit more together (the Indy article is very good on how the Swiss apparently approach this).

Just concentrate on trying to stop them making such a nuisance of themselves, and other people’s lives such a misery, that there’s no alternative to putting them into prison for a while. Otherwise, the prisons are, inexorably, going to fill up with more and more enemy combatants seized in the course of the War on Drugs, a war that is causing far too much collateral damage to victims of burglary and robbery.

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6 Comments »

  1. “I’m in favor of legalizing drugs. According to my values system, if people want to kill themselves, they have every right to do so. Most of the harm that comes from drugs is because they are illegal.”
    Milton Friedman

    Comment by Kit — March 31, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  2. Your basic point is good – though why people seem to lurch between criminalisation and drugs-free-on-the-NHS baffles me. There’s nothing as compelling about, say, cannabis as there is about cigarettes and simply having a legal market in the latter seems to work OK without too many burglaries being carried out by crazed fag addicts.

    But there’s something wrong with some of the figures above. £190 per week on cannabis? Not so. Even a £20 bag a day would come to £140, but almost no smokers consume at that sort of rate. I barely smoke a joint from one year to the next nowadays, but I do know what I’m talking about here. Either there’s a mistake in period (month instead of week) or the prisoners have some kind of benefit from exaggerating their past consumption, and so that’s what they do.

    Comment by Peter Risdon — March 31, 2007 @ 8:51 pm

  3. I don’t know about the cannabis prices, though now you come to mention it does seem rather a lot of money. Come to think of it, the heroin expenditure — which is the drug I’m far more concerned about here, for obvious reasons — seem pretty high, too, given what defendants in my part of the world seem to be paying for a wrap at the moment. Three or four hundred pounds a week on heroin wouldn’t particularly surprise me, but £600 sounds a lot.

    I wonder if the figures perhaps represent an element of social supply — i.e. the prisoners were reporting what they spent, without mentioning what they recouped by selling some on to their friends.

    In any event, most of the money people who end up in prison spend on drugs comes from low-level property crime, at least in my experience. I agree that there’s not much an argument for cannabis on the NHS, but heroin addiction is a very different matter, to my mind.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 31, 2007 @ 9:22 pm

  4. The Swiss experience, which I have observed, really does reduce crime. Since the addicts are indeed, addicted, a free supply cuts out the criminal suppliers, and the criminal behaviour of addicts trying to fund their habit.

    Addiction is a disease, and treating it as such has a huge effect on crime figures – they go down significantly.

    Comment by fifthdecade — April 1, 2007 @ 2:56 am

  5. Fifthdecade makes a good point although the Dutch and Danish experiences weren’t without problems.

    Comment by jameshigham — April 1, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  6. I don’t think there’s any problem-free solution to the problem — natural inclination? — of some people wanting to get out of their heads on various substances, be the substances alcohol or narcotics. I’m more concerned about finding a way they can indulge these inclinations — for indulge them they will, no matter how much people tell them not to — without ending up burglarising people’s houses and then filling up the prisons.

    If we can eventually help them come off drugs, all to the good, but while they’re on them I’d rather they didn’t go about committing crimes and gumming up the works of the criminal justice system.

    Comment by notsaussure — April 1, 2007 @ 1:43 pm


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