Are community sentences more effective then custodial sentences for addressing an offender’s substance misuse?


Substance misuse is the abuse of substances such as illicit drugs and alcohol. It is a term often used to describe the misuse of illegal substances however can also include legal substances such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine. These substances commonly effect the way in which a person’s mind works causing them to lose their inhibitions and clouds their ability to know what is right and wrong. The taking of these substances can then lead some to commit crimes such as drug offences i.e. possession with the intent to supply, or even violent offences in order to obtain the financing for their habit such as robbery or burglary.

This report aims to ascertain whether community sentences are more effective in assisting those with substance abuse then a custodial sentence. It will provide clarification as to what substance abuse is, what a custodial sentence is and how it is determined and what a community sentence is and how this is determined.

What is substance misuse?

Substance misuse is described as the misuse of addictive substances, both illegal and legal such as drugs and alcohol. The illegal misuse of drugs is governed by the misuse of drugs act 1971. The misuse of these drugs can lead people to commit crimes that they may not have necessarily committed had they been sober or of sound mind.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 came into force in 1991 with the intention of controlling the use of illegal drugs such as Heroin and Cannabis. It includes the offences of; Possession with the intent to supply, concerned in the supply, possession and supplying or offering to supply a controlled drug. The interpretation of each offence is in Section 37 of the Act.

The offences within this Act range from either way and summary only to indictable with a minimum sentence of 3 months and a £2000 fine to life. The Act sets our 4 main drug categories: Class A such as Heroin, Class B such as Cannabis, Class C such as GHB or Diazepam and temporary class drugs.

What is a custodial sentence and how is it determined?

A custodial sentence is a sentence determined by a court that states an offender is too spend a specified time in prison. The determination of this form of sentence comes from a court hearing or trail whereby a judge listens to and assesses all given evidence and information provided by the Defence and Prosecution. From here the judge will determine whether the Defendant is guilty or not guilty and what sentence is appropriate, taking into consideration all personal background and case aspects such as whether the offender has children or has every offended before.

If a judge determines an offender as being a danger to society and their crimes serious, they can impose a custodial sentence. Each individual case and offender are considered on their own merits and the sentence imposed is dependent on the offence and the offender. Custodial sentences are reserved for the most serious offences and are imposed when the offence committed is “so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence” (section 152(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003) (Sentencing Council, 2020)

What is a community sentence and how is it determined?

A community sentence is a sentence issued to those offenders whose crimes are consider ‘less serious’ and are not considered a danger to society. Community sentences are often imposed on those who are of young age at the time of offending, have a mental health condition that has affected their behaviour or those who have committed lesser offences such as low-level drug offences and misdemeanours.

A community sentence combines punishment with activities carried out in the community. It can include one or more of 13 requirements on an offender. This could be carrying out up to 300 hours of unpaid work, which might include things like removing graffiti or clearing overgrown areas. It could also mean the offender is required to have alcohol or drug treatment – this aims to tackle the reasons why they have committed crimes. Offenders might also be required to keep to a curfew, which aims to keep them out of trouble. (Sentencing Council, 2020)

Crimes affected by drug and alcohol misuse

There are many crimes that can be affected by the use of drugs and alcohol, as well as there being many crimes that are caused due to the use of drugs and excessive drinking of alcohol. With the most common drug related offences being:

• Being concerned in the supply of drugs

• Supply or offering to supply of drugs

• Possession

• Possession with the intent to supply

There are also offences that the use of drugs can cause such as:

• Driving under the influence

• Theft

• Assault (Common and aggravated)

• Burglary

• Robbery

• Drunk and disorderly

• Public order offences

• Affray

The department of health and social care

The department of health and social care are the The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is a department of Her Majesty’s Government, responsible for government policy on health and adult social care matters in England. This includes the care of those with substance misuse issues such as alcoholism and drug dependency.

The effects of prison on those with substance misuse issues

Whilst custodial sentences help to protect the public from offenders considered dangerous, they do not necessarily receive the help they require should they have substance misuse problems such as drug dependency. The Bradley report is a comprehensive report written in order to assist the reduction of reoffending and improve the care of those with mental health issues in prison. In his 2009 report, Lord Bradley discovered that many of those with substance misuse problems were more likely to have mental health problems, he further discovered that the mental health screening process in prisons were poorly implemented increasing the likelihood of an offender reoffending upon release.

Further to the mental health implications of drug misuse in prisons, it has also been discovered that there are an increased number of those who have access to illegal drugs such as that known as ‘spice’ or Mamba’ in prisons. The use of these synthetic cannabis’s in prisons have increased in the last 5 years and continue to increase. This increase has led the synthetic drug creation has led the creation of gangs and organised crime in prisons as there is now a profit within prisons to be made.

This information alone would lead one to believe that in fact, instead of assisting those with drug misuse problems, it would appear that it is in fact assisting them in funding and facilitating their habit. It also indicates that it is leading those in prison for minor crimes are getting involved in much more serious crimes such as gang violence thus increasing the likelihood of the reoffending both inside and outside of prison.

The effects of community sentencing on those with substance misuse problems

The purpose of community sentences is to combine punishment with community service in the community. This allows an offender to give back to the community that he has harmed and also gives them a chance at rehabilitation. In 2018 the Ministry of Justice rolled out a trial protocol in 5 areas aimed at decreasing the likelihood of one reoffending by focusing in on the reasons for their criminality, such as substance and alcohol abuse. It also aims to have psychologists present in courts in order to assess offenders to ensure those eligible for community sentencing are given the opportunity and referred to a Judge for such disposal.

‘In 5 pilot areas, justice and health services have signed up to a new protocol that will help to divert relevant offenders away from frequently ineffective short-term custodial sentences and towards treatment that aims to tackle the root cause of their criminality.’ (Gov.UK, 2018)

A cohort report completed by the Ministry of Justice found that 34%, in the first survey wave, of those issued with a community order re-offended. Of this 34%, 20% had re-offended within the first 12 months of their community sentence.


Whilst a definitive answer remains unclear, what is clear is that community sentencing offers a more positive route to offender control and punishment. Those with substance abuse problems require assistance in controlling their habits such as specific programmes and classes. Unfortunately, due to the high population in prions at the current time, it is not possible to ensure that each individual offender receives the adequate assistance that they require. However, community sentences provide prolonged assistance to offenders in the form of classes, programmes and specific help such as housing and job searching in order to ensure the offender can build a life outside of prison that does not require the use of drugs or alcohol.

Further to this, it allows for direct and specific assistance to each individual offender in order to address their issues and problems and to ensure that each programme and course provided to an offender is specific in aiding them to build a strong and successful life outside of prison, reducing the likelihood of reoffending.

By Shelby Keppel





Sentencing Council, Custodial sentencing. 2020 [Online] Available at; [Last accessed; 26th March 2020], Misuse of drugs Act 1971. ND. [Online] Available at; [Last Accessed 26th March 2020]

Wikipedia, The department of health and social care. 2020. [Online] Available at; [Last Accessed 27th March 2020]

Russell Webster, substance misuse and mental health in prisons. 2015. [Online] Available at; [Last Accessed 27th March 2020]

Justice inspectorates, Thematic report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. 2015. [Online PDF] Available at; [Last Accessed 27th March 2020]

Gov.UK, Vulnerable offenders steered towards treatment. 2018. [Online] Available at; [Last Accessed 27th March 2020]

Ministry of Justice, Re-offending by offenders on community orders. 2015. [Online PDF] Accessible via; [Last accessed [27th March 2020]

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