Drug-fuelled crime

Home Affairs
Monday, October 15, 2012
Professor Keith Humphreys

In a recent governmental white paper and accompanying Telegraph editorial, former Policing and Justice Minister, Nick Herbert, quite commendably pledged to enhance the swiftness and certainty of justice in the system he oversaw. Such a change would be a condign remedy for drug-fueled crime, most particularly when the drug in question is alcohol, and it will be interesting to see whether his successor, Damian Green, will take the same approach.

The role of drug consumption in criminal offending is hard to overstate. The British Crime Survey recorded one million assaults by alcohol-intoxicated assailants in England and Wales in the past year, and the majority of arrestees in the UK report having a drinking problem. The Home Office places the total cost of alcohol-related crime and social disorder at £8-13 million per annum, a mighty sum that nonetheless does not include the cost in freedom and life satisfaction to the many citizens who no longer feel safe visiting booze sodden town centres on weekend evenings. Consumption of cocaine, heroin and the like have a smaller role in crime than does drinking. Nonetheless, about a fifth of arrestees use one or both of these drugs and heroin-addicted offenders account for at least a plurality of acquisitive property crime.

The two most-commonly proposed policy solutions for drug-fueled crime are alike only in being wrong. The hard-edged approach, whether borne of anger, fear or frustration, is to bang up as many intoxicated offenders as possible. Politicians who adopt this stance rarely suffer at the ballot box, but in policy terms they’re on a hiding to nothing. The prison system is already financially costly and filled to capacity, and even were it expanded there is no evidence that the threat or even the actuality of a stint in prison causes many drug involved offenders to change their behaviour. The soft-hearted, equally misguided, policy alternative is to attack the problem by offering addiction treatment to all drug-using offenders. 

Addiction treatment is a critical part of the health care system and does indeed reduce criminal offences by those who seek it out. But few offenders present for treatment on a voluntary basis, and when magistrates order them to it en masse (as have unsuccessful programmes in the UK and in California) most offenders either don’t show up or nod gamely through a counselling session or two and then return to drug use.

In light of these limits on what the prison or health care system can achieve, policy nihilism about drug-fueled crime has become common. But here is where Herbert’s call for swiftness and certainty could be transformative: A new generation of community supervision systems that conduct regular testing for substance use coupled with swift and certain sanctions substantially reduce substance use, crime and imprisonment. 

To understand what these innovative programmes offer, it is necessary to have a sense of the state of community supervision practice in the criminal justice system. In typical offender supervision programmes, breathalysers and urinalysis tests are used infrequently and the response to evidence of substance use is unpredictable and delayed. Offenders learn quickly that being caught consuming drugs is unlikely and when it happens at most a verbal admonishment or the threat of a possible trial at some far off date is the modal consequence. They therefore continue using drugs and committing crimes until they do something sufficiently heinous that the justice system can’t ignore it, at which point they are sent away to prison. The late, eminent criminologist James Q. Wilson parodied this sort of dysfunction by likening the criminal justice system to an ineffectual parent who tells a child “If you don’t clean up your room tonight, there is a 40% chance that 12 months from now I will ground you for a decade!”.

Emergent swift and certain community supervision programmes are a complete break from this sorry tradition. Such programmes have grown up in many parts of the U.S., with the most researched examples originating in Hawaii (HOPE Probation) and South Dakota (24/7 Sobriety). Programme staff test offenders for drug use regularly, as frequently as twice a day if alcohol is the drug of concern. Those offenders who miss a test or have a positive drug test are tried in court the same day. The court hands down an immediate, modest sanction (typically a night or two in the local gaol) every single time.

Faced for the first time in their criminal career (and perhaps in some cases, in their life) with a transparent, predictable system of immediate consequences, most drug-using offenders dramatically change their behaviour. In a year-long randomized trial of HOPE probation versus typical community supervision, metamfetamine offenders randomly assigned to swift and certain probation had 72% fewer positive drug tests and a 53% lower risk of serving a term in prison (“prison” in this context meaning not the local gaol for low level offenders but a high-security state facility in which murderers, rapists and other serious offenders serve multi-year terms). The latter datum underscores a lesson often lost on those who want an extremely forgiving criminal justice system: The consistent application of a modest sanction early on lessened rather than increased the likelihood of a much more punitive consequence down the road (i.e., a stiffish prison sentence).

Swift and certain supervision is also effective for offenders whose drug of choice is alcohol. The South Dakota “24/7 sobriety” programme has subjected repeat drink drivers collectively to over four million breathalyser tests, of which an astonishing 99.4% have been negative. Once among the leaders in alcohol involved automotive fatalities, South Dakota now ranks somewhat better on road safety than the U.S. average. Importantly, professional treatment and other resources (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous) are offered to all participants in swift and certain supervision programmes. But most offenders who stop using drugs do so without availing themselves of such support. The wisest course for the criminal justice system is therefore not to order drug-using offenders into treatment and hope that they change, but to order offenders to change and offer treatment for those who need it to meet that mandate.

The remarkable effectiveness of swift and certain community supervision programmes is easily understood after a moment’s reflection on human psychology. Human beings, in general, and drug-involved criminals, in particular, have difficulty forgoing immediate rewards for larger benefits that are probabilistic and distant. Hence, the office worker who is not saving enough for retirement will treat herself to an expensive coffee drink each morning and the hardened smoker will enjoy his next drag even though he is raising his long-term risk of cancer. Parents, teachers and faith leaders are among the noble socializing forces, which preach the value of not allowing transitory pleasures to override long-term goals. But by the time an adult is under the supervision of the criminal justice system, it’s a bit late for a sermon, and the short-term orientation of drug-using offenders must be taken as read. That’s what swift and certain community supervision programmes recognise, which is why they yield such impressive gains in an area where so many other well-intended efforts fail miserably.

With the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act on May 1, the legal tools to implement swift and certain community supervision of drug-using offenders are now in the hands of British magistrates and police. If the criminal justice system implements these programmes with integrity, the country will reap handsome rewards in community safety, public cost reduction and rehabilitation of criminal offenders.

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honourary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. From 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office on Drug Policy