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New statistics on drug and alcohol treatment in prisons and for young people

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The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities today published 2020/21 statistics for substance misuse treatment in secure settings, and for young people. Both datasets continue a trend of declining numbers of people in treatment, though last year’s declines should be understood in the context of the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The number of people accessing substance misuse treatment in prisons decreased by 18% to 43,255 adults, around 60% of whom started treatment in 2020/21 and around half of which accessed treatment for opiate use.

However, HMPPS prison population figures for March 2021 show there were almost 6,000 fewer people in prison than in a year previously. Covid-19 lockdowns led to fewer arrests and court closures, which reduced numbers entering custody, and producing a knock-on effect on the number of people entering treatment in prison.

For young people, school closures and reduced face-to-face contact with services led to fewer referrals into substance misuse treatment. This is likely to have played a significant role in the 23% reduction in treatment numbers in 2020/21.

However, while 2020/21 was a highly disruptive year and statistics should therefore be approached with caution, both datasets contain clearly concerning trends. Continuity of care between prison and community, despite a small increase in 2020/21, remains far too low at 38%, leaving 3 in every 5 people leaving prison unable to access the help they need. And for young people, worrying trends continue around increasing benzodiazepine use and co-occurring substance misuse and mental ill health.

The recently announced Drug Strategy and funding should go some way in reversing these trends by 2024/25. The commitment to increase the number of young people in treatment by 5,000 is particularly welcome, as is the proposed increase in support for families and young people most at risk of substance misuse and the wider range of related harms, particularly mental ill health. The Strategy also sets an ambition to significantly improve the custody to community transition – a welcome focus, although the devil will lie in the details in how this achieved.

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Collective Voice is the national charity working to improve England’s drug and alcohol treatment and recovery systems