Sentence structure

Rosser4x3.jpgRichard Rosser on the case for tougher penalties for supplying Psychoactive Substances in prisons   

Today sees the return of the Psychoactive Substances Bill to the floor of the Lords, for its Report stage. A piece of government legislation which we generally support, we are nevertheless seeking improvements and will be encouraging the government to accept two amendments in particular relating to prisons.

Our aim is to make offering to supply new psychoactive substances (NPS) in prison an aggravating feature of the offence of supplying, and therefore likely to incur a heavier sentence as a result. The Bill already makes it a statutory aggravating sentencing factor if the offence took place at, or in the vicinity of a school, since young people are regarded as being vulnerable. Ministers should however, be concerned about vulnerable people in our prison system.

The Justice Secretary recently told the Commons: “there is an unacceptable level of drug use, both of illegal drugs and so-called legal highs, in our prisons”. In the same exchange, the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee said that 35% of prisoners have a drug addiction and 6% acquire their addiction while inside.

Earlier this month, the Prisons and Probation Service Ombudsman said “the use of new Psychoactive Substances is a source of increasing concern, not least in prison”, and referred to 19 deaths in prison between April 2012 and September 2014, where the prisoner was known or strongly suspected to have been using NPS type drugs before their death. Continuing, the Ombudsman added: “Trading of these substances in prison can also lead to debt, violence and intimidation. Once again this creates the potential to increase self-harm or suicide among the vulnerable, as well as adding to the security and control problems facing staff”.

It is the height of irresponsibility, callousness and indifference to potentially vulnerable people to be willingly involved in the supply of NPS on prison premises. It is also the height of greed to accept the financial rewards that result from being part of the supply chain of such substances. And that applies to prison staff, contractors and subcontractors, visitors and those who send deliveries to the prison, and prisoners themselves.

For those carrying out such offences, the penalties should be greater because they are deliberately targeting vulnerable people in a captive location. In doing so, they are defeating the objectives of trying to get such prisoners off drugs and reduce the likelihood of their reoffending, once they have served their sentence. Something that has a negative impact on society as a whole.

Obviously tougher criminal sanctions are not the whole answer and the Ombudsman has called for more training and education on NPS, for prisoners and prison staff alike. But the severity of a sentence does send a message about how the circumstances in which a particular kind of offence is committed, will be regarded. And it will also send a signal to vulnerable young people in our prison system that government is serious about giving them another chance.

Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords

Published 14th July 2015

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