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Drug treatment proven to reduce crime (again)
New research from the Ministry of Justice and Public Health England finds drug treatment reduces reoffending by one third.

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Drugs and crime

There was a period in the late 1990s when the Home Office, researchers (including me) and the popular press were seeking to out-do each other with predictions about how much crime was drug-related. I remember that if you scaled up some of the less reliable calculations, it appeared that at least 120% of all crime was down to drug using offenders.

It was, of course, absolutely true that a large volume of crime (particularly low level thefts and fraud) were being committed by people who were drug dependent and needed new income on a daily basis to buy drugs. This knowledge generated a great amount of policy activity including the introduction of the extremely expensive Drugs Intervention Programme in 2003 which sought to engage heroin and crack users into treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system (police cells, on bail, probation and in prison).

In recent years, the main discourse around crime statistics has been more about the growth of cybercrime, online fraud and, more recently, of serious offences of violence.

Last month (26 October 2017), however, the Ministry of Justice and Public Health England co-operated on an experimental statistical report linking data from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) with reconviction data with the aim of improving the evidence base of the links between community-based treatment for substance misuse and changes in re-offending.

Experimental statistical report

The report includes key sections on:

  • Characteristics associated with offending in the two-years before and after starting treatment;
  • The offending profile both before and after starting treatment;
  • Change in offending; and
  • Offending during prison or treatment.

Key findings

There were a total of 132,909 clients in the final matched dataset commencing structured drug and alcohol treatment in 2012. Of these, there were 31,251 (24%) opiate clients accessing treatment, 57,892 (44%) alcohol only clients, with an additional 23,307 (18%) non-opiate only and 20,459 (15%) non-opiate and alcohol clients.

Offending pre-treatment

Overall, 46,166 (35%) of those accessing treatment had been recorded as committing at least one offence in the two years immediately prior to accessing treatment in 2012 ( a level which, personally, I found surprisingly low). Opiate clients had the highest prevalence, with 47% of those starting treatment in 2012 having a recorded offence in the previous two years. This was followed by non-opiate clients (43%), non-opiate plus alcohol clients (41%) and alcohol only clients (23%).

A total of 128,833 offences were recorded by these clients in the two-year period prior to the start of treatment. Opiate clients had a disproportionate level of offending recorded: they constituted 32% of all pre-treatment offenders but accounted for 41% of their recorded offences.

The four most prevalent offending categories constituted two-thirds of all offences in the two years prior to treatment, and include: summary offences excluding motoring (27% of offences); theft from shops (18%); breaches of court orders (13%) and drug offences (11%).

Theft from shops was the most prevalent offence for opiate clients (30% of offences), while summary offences excluding motoring was the most prevalent offence for both alcohol only clients (43%), alcohol and non-opiate clients (36%), and non-opiate clients (23%).

Offending post-treatment

In the two-year period following the start of treatment 25,876 went on to re-offend, i.e. 56% of pre-treatment offenders. There were 86,513 offences recorded; a reduction of 33% in offences.

Opiate clients showed the smallest decreases in both re-offenders (a reduction of 31%) and re-offending (a reduction of 21%). Alcohol only clients showed the largest reductions in both re-offenders and re-offending (59% and 49%, respectively).

Given that many long-term dependent drug using offenders are likely to take considerable time to make progress in reducing their levels of drug use, it would be interesting to see an analysis that followed this cohort through for another one-two years. Let’s hope PHE and the MoJ consider re-analysing the data in a year’s time.

Factors associated with offending

For both pre-treatment offending and post-treatment re-offending, after controlling for other characteristics it was found that males, those from Black and Ethnic Minorities (which may say something about the cultural sensitivity of drug treatment services), those who are homeless and those with a current or lifetime history of injecting drugs are more likely to offend; while those who are older or are in treatment for substances other than opiates are less likely to offend.

Unsurprisingly, clients who had been in prison prior to starting treatment and those who re-presented to treatment were more likely to re-offend.

Hearteningly, clients who successfully completed treatment or were still in treatment at the end of the period were less likely to re-offend.


In a period at our criminal justice history where politicians of all parties are keen to add new offences to the statute books and increase the severity of punishments, it is good to have a reaffirmation that addressing need is often a more effective route to reducing reoffending than repeat imprisonment.

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