Sentencing Reform and Alternatives to Prison

Organized by the Governments of the United States of America, Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and the Organization of American States.

Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, US

Each of our countries has specific challenges, but we all know that incarcerating drug users will not solve the problem. It is costly, cruel and does not reduce the power of cartels. Thankfully, our predecessors acknowledged this in the drug conventions.

The US has much more to do on the issue of incarceration, but we are addressing the problem by exploring alternatives to prison. In promoting reform we are not suggesting that illegal behaviour be ignored, but stating there are better approaches.

1. Laws policies and practices must be reviewed and updated.
2. Health and justice sectors must work together. Arrested users should be screened to examine if they need treatment.
3. Treatment capacity should expand. Globally, programs such as forced labour camps are not viable alternatives.
4. More pilot programs should be launched that explore a mix of health services, follow up and monitoring.
5. We must, and can, learn from each other. We can speed up progress by exchanging experiences.

Traditionally, we have used words liked ‘addict,’ but we need to remove this stigmatising language and recognise drug addiction as a disease in order to make progress on the issue.

Miguel Samper, Colombia Vice minister for foreign policy

We need to recognise drug use and addiction as a health issue.

Criminal punishment should continue to be used in drug policy; but, we shouldn’t be debating if we should use a hard or soft approach. Rather, we need to speak about how to be smarter concerning the drug problem.

1. We have to rationalise the use of criminal law.
2. Need to reduce incarceration.
3. Address the issue of drug use properly.
4. Properly use public resources to address the drug problem.

In Colombia, it costs $7,000 per year to house them in prison. Training them at university costs $2,000 per year.

Over the last 5 years in Colombia, we evaluated the arrest of people and seizures of substances. We would assume that as arrests go up, seizures go down. But this is not the case. The number of people arrested for drugs has gone up, as have seizures. Our prisons are being filled by people arrested for drug offences.

We’re making a call – we want to continue hitting strong elements of the drug chain [traffickers], but we do differently in terms of targeting users and farmers who cultivate illicit crops. If these mass arrests over the last 5 years in Colombia had had an impact on demand we’d continue, but consumption continues to increase in the country.

We have to adopt policies regionally and internationally that are intelligent. We musn’t lower our guard – that’s not what we are arguing. There are alternatives to incarceration that are much more effective that must be explored. Obviously, every country/area will have different needs, but there must be a clear mandate on sentence proportionality.

We are convinced that legislation should not govern reality, but rather vice versa. We are convinced that by analysing the situation in the world we can formulate better policy internationally.

Roberto Campa, secretary of prevention, Mexico

Prison as a sanction tries to dissuade certain behaviours. But, abusing incarceration in the case of minor offences has serious implications for society.

Clearly, policies that support alternative measures have better results. In Mexico, though, we’ve stuck to a policy of incarceration and this has led to prison overcrowding of over 26%. We are working on reviewing legislation so as to deal with the drug problem from a public health perspective. We want to reduce risk and harm.

One such initiative we have explored are special courts for people suffering from addiction. We are currently working on 17 courts and have committed to developing another 5. We want to develop a standardised model that increases the competencies of courts.

Incarceration for low level drug offences has not worked; we have not reduced demand. Mexico is convinced that the global problem needs an informed solution based on evidence. We want to be effective in combating the problem and take an approach based on human rights.

Ivor Archie, Chief Justice of Trinidad & Tobago

Drug addiction is a public health issue, and we are exploring alternatives to incarceration. Little is done currently concerning rehabilitation and vocational training.

The strategies we’ve employed recently concern – preventative, pre-trial, and post-conviction.

Preventative is focused largely in the family courts system. In providing services such as counselling and mediation, through which we were able to address issues such as drug dependency.

In terms of pre-trial interventions, we have a supervisory program that tackles issues such as illiteracy, among others. These young people are monitored and their progress is taken into account in sentencing.

Drug treatment courts – they are a post-plea model whereby participants must admit guilt before being allowed to take this option. First court launched in 2012. First cohort graduated from the court program in 2014. We are hoping to launch the juvenile component of the drug treatment court this year.

The court of appeal declared recently that mandatory minimums are not constitutional. This means judges and magistrates have greater flexibility in designing appropriate sanctions for the crime.

Drug decriminalisation has been moving in the region. A commission on marijuana has been appointed by CARICOM to look at its medical uses and current laws surrounding it in the region. Each country must be mindful of its own realities, and any change must consider the public good, in particular the impact it may have on our youth.

Art Wyatt, Head of dangerous drugs branch of DoJ, US

Department of Justice undertook a comprehensive review in 2013 of sentencing. Though the US is only 5% of the world’s population, we account for 25% of the world’s prison population. The budget of our federal prison system consumes one third of the DoJ budget which impacts on its ability to work in other areas.

Smart on Crime Initiative introduced in August 2013. At the heart of this, is the change in the department on long standing policies such as “We should always charge to the greatest degree,” including, and especially for drugs. This has created our current reality – our prisons have thousands of non-violent, low-level drug offence prisoners. We’re tackling this by reducing mandatory minimums so that the sentencing better fits their crime.

Half of federal inmates are there on drug crimes in the US. This is extremely costly to the criminal justice system and is not entirely effective. Therefore, we’re looking at diversion and treatment programs.

We’re improving re-entry programs to reduce recidivism among those released from prison.

Implementation of Smart on Crime 18 months — we’ve already seen results. In this fiscal year, the federal prison population is set to drop for the second year, last year being the first decline since the 1980s.

Some prosecutors argue that by reducing reliance on mandatory minimums it could make the work of prosecutors harder to successfully elicit guilty please. However, we’re not seeing this impact to date in terms of prosecutorial efficiency.

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