Monday, 16 September 2013

Turning lives around? Drugs, alcohol and the Offender Rehabilitation Bill

As summer comes to an end and politicians return from recess, the Offender Rehabilitation Bill is about to continue its path through Parliament. The Bill – which was published in May, alongside the Government’s response to the ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ consultation – is comparatively short, but nevertheless important, and contains a number of provisions that are likely to have an impact on those with drug and alcohol problems in contact with the criminal justice system.

Most significantly, perhaps, the Bill introduces a post-custodial licence period for short-term prisoners (those sentenced to up to 12 months), as well as a period of “additional supervision for the purpose of rehabilitation” in the community for anyone sentenced to up to two years’ custody; the licence period and the new supervision period will, together, last 12 months. So, someone sentenced to six months’ custody – who, under the current regime, would be released after three months in prison, with no supervision – will, under the new legislation, serve three months in custody, three months on licence in the community, followed by nine months of supervision.

The Government has set out clear reasons for these provisions: reoffending rates for those released from short prison sentences are high, and post-release supervision will address this through tailored support to help people ‘turn their lives around’. The lack of support for short-term prisoners has been a concern for DrugScope and others for a long time, and the principle of post-release support is an important one. But there are risks, too: it’s possible that the new licence and supervision periods will mean an increased numbers of breaches. This is a real risk for those with drug and/or alcohol problems, who may lead ‘chaotic’ lives, and find complying with the conditions imposed on them difficult. Apart from the cost attached to this (which the updated impact assessment for the Bill puts at somewhere between £6 million and £42 million annually), there’s also the question of the impact of  additional sanctioning as a result of a breach – which could include a return to prison – on ‘recovery capital’ and the pursuit of ‘rehabilitation’. 

There’s an issue, too, around proportionality of sanctioning, and the implications of the new supervision period for this. Someone given a two-week prison sentence, for instance, will in practice be ‘in the system’ for 53 weeks: one week in prison, followed by one week on licence and 51 weeks of supervision in the community.

The Bill also introduces a ‘drug appointment requirement’, which can be imposed as a licence condition, or during the new supervision period. Under this, you would be required to attend appointments with a view to addressing your “dependency on, or propensity to misuse, a controlled drug”. The requirement has to set out who the individual subject to the condition has to meet with (who must have “the necessary qualifications or experience”), where and when the appointments will take place, and the duration of appointments.

Under the Bill’s provisions, there is no “requirement to submit to treatment”. However, there are unanswered questions about what “treatment” means in this context, and how it may be interpreted in practice. It could, for instance, be interpreted to mean only medical treatment, meaning that some individuals might be required, for example, to participate in some forms of psychosocial interventions; further clarification is needed in this area. There are also potential problems as a result of a lack of specialist provision in some areas: this could result in some people being mandated to attend appointments at services that are not able to meet their particular needs effectively, or, in some cases, where their safety could be compromised – for instance, women who are in intimate relationships that are abusive.

Finally, as some DrugScope members have highlighted, the evidence for the effectiveness of mandating people to attend appointments as a way of ensuring engagement with treatment is mixed – for instance,  the required assessment process in the Drug Interventions Programme (DIP). DIP has been very successful in some respects; the National Audit Office (2010) cites Home Office research that crimes committed by those receiving DIP support and in drug treatment fell by 26% compared to their frequency of offending on entering the programme. However, it’s also significant that of those who were assessed under DIP in 2010-11, only 29% went voluntarily from assessment into treatment, with 6% successfully completing this treatment.

It’s positive to see the Government paying attention to those with drug and alcohol problems in the criminal justice system, and improving resettlement support for short-term prisoners. But there are a number of issues with the approach it is taking, which DrugScope has raised with the Ministry of Justice and will continue to pursue.

Gemma Lousely,
Policy Officer

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