Arrested For Substance Use? In the UK, That Means Time in Treatment

A new pilot program that will divert people with substance use disorder into treatment, not prison

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Incorporating mental health into courts and criminal justice produces better outcomes.

Last month, England’s Ministry of Justice announced a new pilot program that will divert people with substance use disorder into treatment, not prison. The program aims to reduce reoffending by replacing “ineffective” short prison sentences with programmes that “will tackle the root causes of criminality.”

JailEngland’s National Health Service (NHS), Public Health England, and Department of Health are testing the program in five areas before the government hopes to roll them out nationwide. So far, the results are promising. Mental health support and recovery programs are a key element of the program, where psychologists are stationed in courts to assess offenders for eligibility for a community order. Local panels of judicial and health officials also liaise with magistrates and judges to ensure positive outcomes for communities and individuals. The Ministry of Justice said that 29 percent of offenders currently starting community sentences say they have mental health problems, a third misuse drugs and 38 percent misuse alcohol.

Understanding the link between recovery and recidivism is key to reforming criminal justice policies that punish people with substance use disorder. In the United States, 80 percent of inmates have substance use problems, and over half of the population is clinically addicted. “Incarceration rates in the U.S. are nine times greater for young African-American men between the ages of 20 and 34 years,” according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Data for the UK is similar: a new survey from the United Nations confirms that developed, industrial countries have the highest rates of unsafe substance use.

David Gauke, England’s justice secretary, has been pushing against the use of short prison sentences amid a crisis driving drug abuse and record self-harm and violence in overcrowded jails. According to The Independent, he said, “We are all clear that we need to do more to support vulnerable offenders in the community. I want to improve confidence in community sentences, and early evidence from these sites has shown that treatment requirements can have a significant impact in improving rehabilitation and addressing the underlying causes of offending.”

Incorporating mental health into courts and criminal justice produces better outcomes. According to The Independent, the lead judge in Merseyside’s complex case court, which is part of a pilot in Sefton, said having psychologists in court meant judges can make community orders without having to delay a case by adjourning it.

District Judge Richard Clancy said that the new program “is a remarkable and innovative move which I fully support. This is an excellent joint venture, and I have seen firsthand how this allows us to ‘nip in the bud’ one of the major causes of crime.”

A 2017 joint report by the Ministry of Justice and Public Health England showed a stark drop in offending by people who underwent treatment, with the number of crimes committed down a third over two years and 59 percent for alcohol treatment. After the pilot is implemented nationally, these outcomes may continue improve further. The UK’s new perspective on justice and people with substance use disorder is creating a progressive, effective program that could potentially be replicated or adapted to courts in the United States.

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