Home » Side event: Alternatives to imprisonment

Side event: Alternatives to imprisonment

Side event organised by UNODC and European Cities Against Drugs

Caroline Cooper, School of Public Affairs, American University, USA – What we have found in the US is that the role of the criminal justice system is important to promote recovery, treatment and healing of individuals, families and communities. We started with the court system but other agencies are working on this too. Both in the USA and other countries there is recognition that we need global strategies. We need alternatives to incarceration as the primary response to drug use. We must focus on supply and demand, as well as focus on all aspects of drug use. The justice system can be a critical vehicle to work with health, education and institutional networks. It is not simply a choice between treatment and incarceration. People commit crimes under the influence of drugs, so we cannot have simplistic answers. There is an interplay between the criminal justice system and health. We learned that judicial practices of incarceration have been counterproductive. We’ve also learned a tremendous amount about treatment. Defining what treatment is, is a big challenge all of us are dealing with. There is a new paradigm on the role justice can play to address drug use. We must also promote the public trust and confidence.

Drug treatment courts have been the catalyst that changed the paradigm. This started in 1989 in Miami. This was something that judges were dealing with every day and who decided they had to do things differently. They felt that the leverage of the justice system could be used positively, a promoter of health, healing and self-confidence.

The effectiveness of drug courts has been heavily studied. The effect of mandatory treatment was useful for promoting health. The judge talks to people in a very personal way, we are in a different paradigm. This also requires a triage approach to distinguish between those committing crime because of addiction, and those who commit crimes for other reasons.

There are results from 2 fields showing that addiction is a disease, and those showing the negative effects of putting a user in prison. Law enforcement is the first responders to triage the nature of different situations. Training law enforcement is necessary so that they can understand what an addict looks like. They can also team up with the health and social workers to help diffuse difficult situations. Community policing strategies can also be a proactive way to diffuse situations as they occur in the community. It can help build trust, police can become mentors. Drug market interventions are another partnership with the police and community leaders and church groups to tackle open drug markets.

During prosecution, the justice system retains leverage over those who enter the drug court programme, adopting multiple approaches. There is also a youthful offender programme for those 18-25. Defence attorneys look at holistic needs for the defendants. The courts are also promoting alternatives to incarceration, public health, housing, etc., through triaging and identify those who need services. We have family drug courts, those focusing on mental health, or others focusing on prostitution. We have broadened sentencing options over time, with probation instead of incarceration, deferred punishment, or project HOPE. The objective is to promote a therapeutic approach and manage cases through supervising services.

We have a lot going on in the United States and in Costa Rica in this area of work.

Valerie Lebaux, UNODC Justice Section – Today we are celebrating human rights day and the promotion of alternatives to prison is critical to advancing criminal justice reform and upholding health and human rights. Our office advocates for the recognition that drug use, drug use disorders and its consequences including HIV, hep C, overdoses, are public health issues which should be addressed with public health policies. We advocate for moving from a criminal sanction model to a public health one, based on the 3 UN drug conventions. Threat of incarceration for drug use is a barrier to accessing health services.

We must remove obstacles in law, policies and practice. There is a large body of evidence suggesting that prison and confinement in compulsory treatment centres has no impact on levels of drug use and related crime. UNODC advocates for the closure of compulsory detention and rehabilitation centres and we assist states to close those down and provide healthcare and treatment in the community.

The CND has in recent years promoted this health oriented approach towards people who use drugs in contact with the criminal justice and adopted a resolution on the issue, encouraging states to improve cooperation between public health and criminal justice systems. It also emphasises the importance of non-custodial measures for the safety of individuals and society.

UNODC encourages member states to use alternatives to imprisonment for drug related offences of a minor nature, independently from drug use. The conventions, in particular the 1988 convention, clearly have a focus on targeting law enforcement, criminal justice and cooperation towards serious offences, large scale trafficking, money laundering, etc. Because of that focus, the conventions provide alternative provisions that should be exploited by state parties.

The results of inappropriate use of incarceration are prison overcrowding, human rights violations, increases in health risks in prison. UNODC works for the promotion of alternatives to incarceration, including standards and norms – Tokyo Rules in 1990, Beijing Rules of 1985 for juveniles but also the model strategic measures to prevent violence against children in the criminal justice system, the Bangkok Rules for women in prison and women offenders. All of these have been adopted by the General Assembly and can guide the implementation of the international drug control treaties when it comes to alternatives to incarceration.

Regarding female drug offenders, numbers have increased in the past decades, and they don’t commit major drug offences. They are small players – mules, introduce drugs in prison, etc. Contributing factors to their engagement in the drug trade include poverty, addiction, coercion. The Bangkok Rules promote the consideration of alternatives because the imprisonment of one woman can have a significant impact on those around her and her community.

We emphasise how crucial legal representation is for alternatives to incarceration. UNODC promotes the right to legal aid and its effective provision, as defined by the Crime Commission. Many of those arrested for minor offences are illiterate, vulnerable, etc. and need an efficient defence, in particular at the early stages of the criminal justice system. Promoting effective, fair drug control and criminal justice is one of the main aspects of achieving sustainable development.

Mr. Torbjorn Brekke, Norway – Two out of three prisoners are drug users, unemployed, low levels of education, recidivists. One of the reasons for putting people in prison is rehabilitation. But we have realised that imprisoning users does not lead to incarceration so we now offer alternatives to incarceration. They can now stay in an approved institution. The results are not very good but good enough compared to other systems.

Where we have had the best results has been a modified version of drug courts, including all involved stakeholders to design a new pilot programme in 2006 – drug programme controlled by courts, which started in Oslo. It is an alternative criminal sanction to prevent new crimes and promote rehab. The district courts can decide to attend a treatment programme for 2 years. Judges have an active role in the running of the programme. It is evaluated regularly. Each participant has different arrangements including plans for school and employment. The courts role is to decide which sanction to impose. At the end of the probation, the programme can be prolonged if the person is not ready yet.

More than 1/3 of people who attended the programme completed the course. Most were heavy drug users. This performs better than other drug courts developed elsewhere. We reach those hard to reach and treat.

Follow up survey over two years: only 8% went back to prison after 2 years. Those who completed had better access to services. This is a cost-effective approach and we have now decided to implement these programmes nationally.

Ali Reunanen, lecturer and recovered user – I am a recovered addict and a criminal. This is important for me to tell you who I am. I was like most young kids, 14-15 years old, trying alcohol and marijuana. I started to feel good, and this is what happened. You live between euphoric and depressive. Most people are in the middle. When I was using drugs, I was euphoric, but my feelings when I didn’t use ended up reaching depression. I didn’t want to be there so I wanted to use drugs to feel normal. That’s how I lived for a long time. This started taking over my life, for almost 20 year. By 1990, I had used so much drugs that I lost my family, my job, my friends, my money. I was indebted to everybody and everything was breaking down. I told myself I was going to use drugs until I died. I did this for three years. I sold everything I had and my health deteriorated. I was sitting at Christmas Eve thinking how to commit suicide. I continued using drugs for a few months.


In April, I wanted to pick up amphetamines, and a police officer stopped me. He incarcerated me. I was isolated for three months, which was the first time I got clean. I got thinking – is this really how I want my life to be? It was the first time I asked for help. The next day, there was a young girl who came to see me. She helped me go to a 12-step programme, where I focused on my feelings, my history of incarceration, what others people had done to me. And I started my path to recovery, it took time to get used to another life. I only knew I wanted to be honest and clean. I didn’t have work, I owed people money. I started to build a new life. In 1997, I was at one meeting where I met a few guys and we started to think of how to work with others to help them get a new life. We started Criminals’ Return Into Society. We have presence in Sweden, Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, Japan. It’s been working well for us, we have 15,000 people we help to get a new life. We try to give prisoners hope. We are trying to get new good programmes in prison. Lots of people we work with can’t write or read. So we help them out with this and with their problem with criminality.

I have now been clean for 18 years now, this is possible.

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