Alternatives to incarceration

Community-based alternatives to incarceration (Figure 41 OL) targeting drug-using offenders have expanded in EU Member States since the late 1990s (Table 14 OL). They have been developed within an extensive framework of innovations in penal policy, the other main components of which are mediation and reparation (i.e. a trend towards community service). Basically, the alternatives consist in the provision of drug treatment. There is evidence that treatment is effective in reducing drug use and crime (Stevens et al., 2003). Treatment could be especially effective in reducing crime if it is targeted towards long-term drug users, who are responsible for the majority of minor offences. In addition, prison sentences have been found to be ineffective as a deterrent against petty crime (Brochu, 1999).



There is no clear evidence that quasi-compulsory treatment approaches are successful. European research tends to be more sceptical in this regard than American research, which since the 1970s has reported positive findings. More research is needed on the process and outcomes, and this research should include both quantitative and qualitative studies. However, the evaluation of a Danish scheme that allows offenders to serve their sentence in a special in-prison treatment department found that the crime rate decreased, especially when the alternative to incarceration was offered to criminals of long standing (Danish national report, 2002). The Triple Ex project in The Hague, a coercive type of treatment, found that longer duration in treatment was associated with a reduced relapse rate (Vermeulen et al., 1999).

Many of the factors identified as leading to lack of success of alternatives to punishment are linked with the lack of coordination across the different sectors involved, namely justice, health and social welfare. Typically, evaluations reveal gaps in funding for treatment (80), a lack of any clear demarcation between the roles of judges and treatment staff regarding who should determine the best type of treatment, and inadequate community treatment services (EMCDDA, 2003a). An evaluation of the Community Service Order, one of the tools available to the Irish legal establishment to redirect drug users from prisons to alternative forms of punishment, shows that formal and/or informal collaboration across the justice, social and health services is crucial for success (Expert Group on The Probation and Welfare Services, 1999).

The justice systems in Member States have designed special measures targeting young drug users, including early interventions and alternatives to prosecution. Early interventions aim to prevent criminality by acting at the early stages of criminal careers. One of the measures most commonly applied across Member States is to avoid or to delay the first prison sentence by diverting young people from the criminal justice system to an alternative socio-health programme. In Portugal, the Commissions for the dissuasion of drug abuse are an example of a structure created to implement alternatives to prosecution. They were established when the possession of drugs for personal use was decriminalised in 2001. An evaluation after one year shows positive results in preventing development of a drug problem and diminishing the time period between initiation of problematic drug use and the contact with treatment institutions (Portuguese annual report 2002).


(80) The evaluation of a Swedish alternative to prison project showed lack of financial sources to pay the treatment at the end of the sentence period (Swedish national report, 2003).