DrugScope has welcomed aspects of the new sentencing guidelines for drug offences published today by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales. The publication follows a consultation process undertaken by the Council to which DrugScope provided a full written submission, as well as participating in a number of consultation meetings with Council representatives.
DrugScope’s submission highlighted a number of concerns over existing practice in sentencing for drug offences, particularly relating to sentencing for potentially vulnerable offenders. Several issues raised by DrugScope, including the need for proportionate sentencing for women coerced or intimidated into trafficking drugs (‘drug mules’), have been at least partly addressed by the final document.
DrugScope has campaigned for some time on the high sentencing tariffs received by drug mules, often vulnerable women intimidated or coerced into trafficking drugs. Our Using Women report (2005) stated that “foreign national women caught bringing drugs into Britain receive some of the longest prison sentences handed down by British courts for any offence, including the most violent” and argued that “serious consideration [should be] given to introducing a new, distinct and lower tariff offence of ‘drug couriering’.”
The guidelines recognise that people engaged in the importation of drugs by “pressure, influence, intimidation or relatively small reward” should be treated as having a “subordinate role” and limited culpability, with ‘drug mules’ identified as falling into this subordinate category. DrugScope welcomes the position adopted by the Council, although remains concerned that despite recognition of their subordinate role, sentences received by drug mules may still be lengthy.
DrugScope also welcome the Council’s decision to advise the judiciary that community orders should be considered as a realistic alternative to prison for drug dependent individuals. The guidelines state that Drug Rehabilitation Requirements “can be a proper alternative to a short or moderate length custodial sentence” for drug dependent individuals across the full range of drug offences.
DrugScope continues to question whether using the criminal justice system to respond to offences of drug possession is the most effective way to reduce drug-related harms both to individuals and the wider community. The charity supports calls for a review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but recognises that this was clearly beyond the parameters of the consultation carried out by the Sentencing Council.
Martin Barnes, Chief Executive of DrugScope, said:
“It’s clear that the Sentencing Council has carried out a careful and considered consultation on sentencing for drug offences. We’re pleased that the Council has taken on board much of the evidence submitted by organisations such as DrugScope.
“As a result of these changes to the guidelines, we are hopeful that more judges will feel able to refer people who are dependent on drugs for treatment as part of a sentence for a drug-related offence. Good quality treatment is instrumental to breaking the cycle of drugs and crime which blight the lives of many individuals and communities.
“DrugScope has long had concerns about the numbers of women involved in low level supply and other offences as a result of violence and intimidation: far too many end up in the courts and in our prisons. We believe that these guidelines are a positive step forward in addressing this problem.”