Prevention not punishment

Richard Branson breaking the taboo

The Global Commission on Drug Policy has long called for countries around the world to treat drugs as a health problem not a criminal problem, and progress is slowly being made towards this end. However, concentrating upon prevention not punishment isnt only applicable when it comes to drugs policy.


This excellent leader in The Economist on the global trend of falling crime rates argues that to keep it down governments should focus on prevention, not punishment.

It highlights the relationship between the advancing age of the population and prisoners with long mandatory sentences for certain crimes: American prisons are full of old men, many of whom are well past their criminal years, and non-violent drug users, who would be better off in treatment. In California, the pioneer of mandatory sentencing, more than a fifth of prisoners are over 50.

Focusing upon punishment also huge social and financial implications: To keep each one inside costs taxpayers $47,000 a year (about the same as a place at Stanford University). And because prison stresses punishment rather than rehabilitation, most of what remains of the crime problem is really a recidivism issue. In England and Wales, for example, the number of first-time offenders has fallen by 44% since 2007. The number with more than 15 convictions has risen. By focusing upon treatment rather than punishment, the likelihood of reoffending could be reduced and resources could be freed up to tackle dangerous crime.

To make this a reality, there needs to be a shift of opinion from world leaders as well as the public. Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, expands on this point: Drug reforms will not be successful if we dont push for a transformation of mind sets, public perceptions and attitudes.

After all, we really need to achieve a shift similar to what happened with mental disorders, which moved from patients being punished, being imprisoned, to being seen as a health problem that had to be treated. There is still a long way to go but we need to persevere.

Jorge is now part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. While he was in power he was responsible for the brave reforms in Portugal that has resulted in nobody being imprisoned for personal drug use. Since this policy was introduced in 2001, the situation in Portugal has got dramatically better. More leaders need to follow his example and do the right thing on drugs policy.

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