Collective Voice Logo

What the Sentencing Bill means for people who use drugs and alcohol and services that support them.

Share this

We welcome proposals to suspend short prison sentences which can disrupt treatment and recovery and are ineffective at reducing reoffending but partnership working with the treatment and recovery system is needed to ensure effective implementation.

The Sentencing Bill is shortly due to enter Committee stage in Parliament. It includes two clauses which would bring positive changes to sentencing that, if well implemented, will not only reduce some pressure on the prison system, but also ensure that people whose contact with the criminal justice system is related to the way they use drugs and alcohol are able to get the treatment and support they need.

Duty to impose suspended sentence order for sentences of 12 months or less.

The Sentencing Bill introduces a presumption that custodial sentences of 12 months or less will be suspended. Instead, a person who previously would have received a short prison sentence would now serve their sentence in the community on a Suspended Sentence Order (SSO). They would be subject to conditions, such as accessing treatment for drug and alcohol addictions, which could see them sent to prison for the original offence if they fail to comply; or if they went on to commit another offence whilst subject to the SSO.

Collective Voice supports a presumption that custodial sentences of 12 months or less will be suspended. Short term custodial sentences present a range of challenges for the people who receive them, disrupting family ties, housing, employment, and treatment programmes and they do not provide opportunities for meaningful rehabilitation within the custodial estate. A significant number of people sentenced to short prison sentences have a drug or alcohol issue on arrival at prison and common offences that receive short custodial sentences such as theft and drug offences are often driven by underlying drug addiction and dependency and the linked issues of poverty, homelessness, and poor mental health. For people with drug and alcohol issues, short custodial sentences can be disruptive to the treatment and recovery journey, they:

– can interrupt existing treatment and support.
– do not provide sufficient time for meaningful engagement with treatment and support in custody.
– can lead to further interruptions to treatment and support when transitioning to new services on release.

Short sentences contribute to prison ‘churn’ and volatility which are key challenges to providing effective treatment and recovery services to those in custody. They are also ineffective at tackling crime. The Ministry of Justice’s own evidence shows that reconviction rates are lower for people on suspended sentences and community orders than short sentences . For people with a drug and alcohol issue linked to their contact with the criminal justice system, a study by Public Health England found that in the two years following treatment in the community, there was a reduction of 44% in the number of reoffenders, and a 33% reduction in the number of offences committed.

How drug and alcohol treatment and recovery services can support the implementation of this duty

To ensure that this change can have a maximum impact in getting people the support services they need, to address the underlying causes of their offending and, in doing so, lead to a reduction in reoffending, careful thought to how the policy will be implemented is needed. The pressures currently being experienced by the probation service are already impacting partnership working between probation and community drug and alcohol services and it is therefore vital that implementation is carefully considered so as not to risk shifting a prison crisis to a probation crisis.

Given the number of this cohort who have a drug and alcohol issue a clear plan is needed for how the presumption will be implemented for people with drug and alcohol issues. There needs to be clear pathways for sentencers and probation to ensure people get the drug and alcohol treatment and support they need.

Drug and alcohol treatment and recovery charities stand ready to support this implementation. Community treatment services offer a wide range of services including drug-related information, advice, assessment, referrals, harm reduction interventions, treatment, and aftercare. They accept referrals from many agencies as well as self-referrals and are well placed to receive referrals of this cohort. Referral pathways into community services from the criminal justice system currently exist in the form of Drug Rehabilitation Requirements and referrals from probation, as well as the addiction and dependency Community Sentence Requirements services, Project Adder, and Integrated Offender Management. It is important to note that drug and alcohol services are about to enter the final year of funding announced alongside the 10-year drug strategy and for the work to continue in building the quality and capacity of the treatment system, long term sustainable funding for the entire 10 years of the strategy is necessary.

Others within this cohort may have more complex and multiple needs and may require more structured interventions such as residential rehabilitation or supported housing, the capacity of which is more limited. There needs to be a clear assessment of the cohort and their needs to ensure that capacity exists in the system to support them and to establish appropriate pathways and structures to support this group.

It will be essential for sentencers to have a clear understanding of the range of drug and alcohol services outlined above. Pre-sentence reports will be vital in ensuring that people’s needs are accurately identified so that any treatment conditions of a suspended sentence order are appropriate to a person’s drug or alcohol use and level of need. Involvement of drug and alcohol workers in courts is a potential way to support this. Greater use of use of specialist courts such as the problem-solving courts in Liverpool, Stockton & Birmingham could enable this – they provide an opportunity to shape sentencing more effectively, but also enable more active ‘supervision’ by the courts regarding progress.

Extension of home detention curfew

Clause 8 legislates to extend eligibility for Home Detention Curfew (HDC) to those sentenced to four years or more. It also introduces a more proportionate approach to eligibility for those who have been previously recalled or returned to custody, or who have previously breached the conditions of a home detention curfew. The same exclusions that prevent people convicted of violent, sexual, and terrorist offences and those convicted of domestic abuse from being eligible for the scheme will continue to apply.

Collective Voice supports this proposal which will assist the transition from custody to the community, thus supporting people to better access drug and alcohol services on release and ease population pressures on the prison estate.

There is a potential risk that people for whom drug and alcohol is linked to their offending, and who often have a range of other needs including insecure housing, might be less likely to viewed as eligible for HTC due to a lack of a fixed abode.

It is therefore important that implementation of this policy considers how the Community Accommodation Service might be utilised to ensure that those with drug and alcohol issues are also able to benefit from HDC.

Next steps

Collective Voice will be keeping a close eye on the Sentencing Bill’s progress through parliament and seeking to engage with the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service regarding its implementation.

Leave a Reply

Related Content


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