Reducing reoffending is a key aim of sentencing. But far too often, a conviction in court is just one stop in a revolving door of reoffending. Close to three out of every ten individuals convicted of an offence at court are reconvicted within a year. Those who do reoffend commit an average of four further offences in the next year alone. Research consistently finds that substance misuse is a significant risk factor for reoffending. So if regular court appearances and short custodial sentences are failing to reduce rates of reoffending in the UK, how should the courts seek to deal with drug and alcohol-related crime?
Court as a last resort
Firstly, pre-court diversion should be employed more widely as an initial response to offending. Diversion can be a more effective way of addressing low-level criminal behaviour and ensures that people receive a proportionate resolution that addresses the underlying issues that drive offending. Individuals who are arrested and are ‘diverted’ must comply with the conditions of the diversion which include need-focused interventions such as engagement in drug treatment and support, reparation activity such as voluntary work, and restorative justice.
Those who comply should receive a lesser criminal justice disposal, thus reducing the negative consequences of formal criminal justice processing and sanctions. Our publication, Pre-court diversion for adults: an evidence briefing, highlights the strong evidence internationally, and moderate evidence from the UK, that pre-court diversion reduces reoffending. There is also wider evidence that pre-court diversion may be particularly effective for specific groups of individuals, including those with substance misuse issues.
Yet, for individuals with entrenched drug and alcohol issues who are frequently appearing in court due to the repeat nature and increasing severity of their offending, short custodial sentences are often imposed. However, as mentioned in our recent report, Smarter Community Sentences, the evidence shows that community sentences are more effective at reducing reoffending than short prison sentences. Furthermore, that combining the authority of the judiciary with the strengths of local support services can positively impact the rehabilitative power of community sentences and reduce reoffending. These problem-solving approaches have been established in a number of jurisdictions including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK.
Diversion can be a more effective way of addressing low-level criminal behaviour and ensures that people receive a proportionate resolution that addresses the underlying issues that drive offending.
Enhancing the court’s approach
Substance misuse courts are the most common types of problem-solving courts, with more than 3,000 examples in the US as well as in many other jurisdictions. There are only a handful of criminal problem-solving projects operating across the UK, however this approach has been successfully used in eight Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (with a further six in planning) in public family law which are being funded and expanded by the Government.
Substance misuse courts offer an alternative to custody and help people who offend to receive fast-tracked access to community support services such as rehabilitation programmes. These courts tend to operate out of existing courthouses and use the same sentencing options as traditional courts but seek to enhance their use of community sentencing through the use of regular and consistent judicial monitoring as well as appropriate sanctions and incentives to encourage compliance, in addition to mandatory drug and alcohol treatment and testing.
Recently, I spoke with practitioners from four substance misuse courts from across the UK about what makes their project a success and what they have learned from operating a problem-solving court. From these discussions, we highlighted a number of key features shared by these schemes that practitioners believed enhanced their court’s existing response to substance misuse which we outlined in our briefing, Enhancing the criminal court response to substance misuse. Practitioners identified the importance of effective and consistent judicial monitoring which is delivered through regular review meetings, fast-tracked access to treatment and customised support plans, strong partnership working and community support networks, and recognising participants’ achievements at their final court appearance. By incorporating the enhanced features outlined above, substance misuse courts aim to improve the effectiveness of community sentences, avoid short prison sentences and tackle high rates of repeat offending by addressing the underlying issues that drive offending and frequent contact with the courts.
Enhancing the evidence
There is a wealth of research demonstrating the success of substance misuse courts in the United States, however, the US model cannot be simply replicated internationally, problem-solving approaches must consider the local context and adapt accordingly. While there is limited evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness in a UK context, there have been some small scale evaluations that have provided positive findings, including an evaluation of the Glasgow Drug Court in 2006 that praised the “fast-tracking” of and the system of pre-court review hearings and reviews and an initial evaluation of Belfast’s Substance Misuse Court pilot in March 2020 which found that well-being and self-efficacy increased and substance misuse and projected risk of reoffending decreased. To support the expansion of these approaches, rigorous data collection methods, and further research are needed to demonstrate whether these enhancements deliver better outcomes in the UK.
Finding effective alternatives to short- and medium-term custodial sentences are essential to reducing reoffending rates and the Government has stated their interest in strengthening community sentencing. The newly released White Paper on sentencing announced a commitment to piloting five new problem-solving courts as an alternative to custody and highlights the success of the approach in FDACs. These pilots are expected to focus on three main issues, namely substance misuse, domestic abuse and female offending and will contribute significantly to the development of a reliable evidence base in the UK.
Finding effective alternatives to short- and medium-term custodial sentences are essential to reducing reoffending rates
Expanding the practice
In September, we held a workshop with representatives from five problem-solving courts from around the UK to increase knowledge of current practice in substance misuse courts in the UK and better understand the challenges and opportunities of operating a substance misuse court in the UK. Both judicial leadership and the commitment of local services were highlighted as essential to the sustainability of the problem-solving approach. Practitioners also noted that there are huge benefits to having the opportunity to share and learn from each other’s experiences. The Centre for Justice Innovation is keen to act as the bridge between projects of this kind and it is our hope that we can continue to facilitate these discussions going forward.
At the Centre for Justice Innovation, we have been working to spur, sustain and expand problem-solving practice, in both criminal and family justice, across the United Kingdom. We offer direct practice support to existing schemes as well as facilitating workshops for experts and interested parties to come together to share best practice and encourage new projects. The Centre also leads the national partnership for Family Drug and Alcohol Courts in the UK which aims to strengthen, expand and champion the FDAC approach. If you are interested in learning more about how courts are enhancing their problem-solving practice, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ministry of Justice Proven Reoffending Tables (Annual Average) January 2018 – March 2018.
Ministry of Justice (2013) Transforming Rehabilitation: A Summary of Evidence on Reducing Reoffending.
Bowen & Whitehead. (2015). Problem-Solving Practice: An Evidence Review. Centre for Justice Innovation: London.
McIvor, G., Barnsdale, L., Eley, S., Malloch, M., Yates, R. & Brown, A. (2006). The operation and effectiveness of the Scottish drug court pilots. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.
Probation Board of Northern Ireland (2020) Evaluation of the Substance Misuse Court Pilot. Accessed at https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/justice/evaluation-of-the-substance-misuse-court-pilot.pdf