Prison reform and the cost of drug prohibition

The decriminalization of drugs has the potential to save the British taxpayer money, and simultaneously improve the security and health of the general public.

Tim Brinton /
Decriminalizing drugs in Britain could cut prison and law enforcement costs significantly.

Faced with the dire need to restore discipline to British public finances and a rising rate of reoffending among prisoners, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced yesterday broad changes to the way in which the government administers criminal justice. The prison population of England and Wales recently surpassed 85,000 inmates this year, a historically unparalleled number that is expected to continue to grow even further in coming years. As a proportion of their populations, England and Wales lock up nearly 150 of every 100,000 residents, a number that represents one of the highest rates of incarceration in Western Europe.

This sizeable prison population does not come without a significant cost to taxpayers, who must shell out more than £100 per day to keep a single prisoner behind bars. While acknowledging that the government must apprehend and punish violent or otherwise dangerous criminals, Mr. Clarke called for an end to the “numbers game,” in which increases in spending and the rate of incarceration define success in matters having to do with crime. The coalition government will undertake a review of sentencing policy in an attempt to determine what changes should be made.

Mr. Clarke’s comments should raise serious consideration of the unnecessary and severe costs of drug criminalization. A sizeable percentage of those incarcerated in England and Wales are drug offenders; a 2009 report by the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College London revealed that 15.5% of those incarcerated are convicted on such charges. At more than £35,000 per inmate year, the cost of simply holding these offenders in prison costs taxpayers nearly £500 million per year. This cost, along with those associated with enforcement of drug laws, should be examined seriously as the government proceeds with its review.

The Adam Smith Institute has advocated a more sensible policy, involving the medicalisation of addictive and damaging drugs, and the legalisation of recreational drugs. Such a policy would eliminate the financial burden of incarcerating drug offenders, as well as the need to expend precious resources to police drug-related crimes. The decriminalization of drugs, as has been successfully completed in Portugal with positive results, has the potential to save the British taxpayer money, and simultaneously improve the security and health of the general public. The coalition government should use this opportunity to inject sensibility into the criminal justice system and eliminate costly penalties for drugs.

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