Sunday, 19 April 2015

Will the Conservatives' short sharp spell in custody change behaviour ?

I spent much of last week at the 13th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Doha. The five yearly event, opened for the first time by the UN Secretary General, comprises not only formal deliberations of member states but a rich programme of ancillary meetings mainly run by civil society organisations. These provided the 4,000 participants opportunities to discuss everything from prison overcrowding to wildlife and forest crime, from reducing acid attacks on women to match fixing in sport. Inevitably a number of meetings looked at the financial, economic and costs of the war on drugs and the disastrous impact it has had on the use and practice of imprisonment around the world.

London based NGO Penal Reform International used the Congress to launch its important report on Global Prison Trends 2015, containing a special pull-out section analysing those links between drugs and prison around the world. Meanwhile,  back in the UK, the Conservative party was publishing its election manifesto. It promised to introduce “a new semi-custodial sentence for prolific criminals, allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour”. Briefings afterwards revealed that so called flash incarceration will mean “persistent vandals, shoplifters and drug addicts will spend two nights in a police cell under Conservative plans”.

Think tanks Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice are each likely to claim the role of midwives for the policy of “swift and certain punishment.” Both have extolled the virtues of Hope Probation, the tough love programme piloted in Hawaii which involves probation supervision accompanied by frequent drug testing. Failures lead to immediate but short terms of detention. Research has found impressive outcomes in terms of reduced drug use and jail time.  Because of its success, the short terms of detention imposed on programme failures require  fewer prison beds in Hawaii than do the longer sentences served by those who fail normal probation supervision.

Despite the research, I have been a bit sceptical about the wisdom of importing the approach in the UK.  At a Doha meeting organised by the Open Society Foundations on progressive drug law enforcement, I asked what the experts on the panel thought about the merits of a “swift and certain” punishment regime for drug misusers.

It turns out that there is a bit of scepticism on the other side of the Atlantic too. Some observers at least, while acknowledging the impact that Hope has had in Hawaii, question whether that is enough to justify its “correctional popularity”. Frank Cullen and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati point to “uncritical acceptance and importation of the programme to the U.S. mainland” and argue that several uncertainties about the programme may potentially compromise its effectiveness in other jurisdictions, thus offering false hope as a newparadigm.

It turns out too that evidence on another popular intervention- drug courts – is a good deal more equivocal than many would like. Evaluations have shown that in terms of impact on aggregate prison populations, in contrast to Hope, reductions in the numbers sent  to prison by Drug Courts in general have been offset by increased sentence lengths for the programme failures that are jailed.  

The lesson seems to be that however benign the policy intent, using criminal justice agencies to deal with what is fundamentally a health issue can be highly problematic. As a recent Open Society report puts it drug courts "do not represent reform if they undermine health and human rights, …. or if they impose punishment for relapses that are a normal part of drug dependence”.

Exactly the same can be said of the new Conservative policy.

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