Drug and Alcohol Findings home page in a new window EFFECTIVENESS BANK Bulletin 6 November 2012

The entries below are our accounts of documents collected by Drug and Alcohol Findings as relevant to improving outcomes from drug or alcohol interventions in the UK. The original documents were not published by Findings; click on the Titles to obtain copies. Free reprints may also be available from the authors. If displayed, click prepared e-mail to adapt the pre-prepared e-mail message or compose your own message. The Summary is intended to convey the findings and views expressed in the document. Below may be a commentary from Drug and Alcohol Findings.


Contents

Features under-18 drug/alcohol treatment in England, initiatives to prevent underage alcohol sales in Britain, drug/alcohol testing lorry drivers, and mandatory minimum US sentencing laws.

Fewer under-18s need specialist treatment in England ...

Road-tested good ideas to prevent underage alcohol sales ...

Too little evidence to recommend drug/alcohol testing lorry drivers ...

Lock them up and throw away the key laws costly and unnecessary ...


Substance misuse among young people 2011–12.

National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse.
[UK] National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, 2012.

Documents trends towards more successful specialist treatment of children with alcohol and drug problems in England. Patient numbers have fallen in line with trends among young adult patients and the general population, a sign of fewer drug problems generally, though cannabis bucked the downward trend.

Summary This is one of a series of reports (for last year's click here) from the special health authority which aims to improve treatment for drug problems in England, presenting a picture of this treatment based on data from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System.

The featured report concerns specialist treatment for alcohol or drug problems of children under 18 years of age. It comments that drug and alcohol misuse among teenagers is problem in itself, but also often a symptom of their broader vulnerability. Many have difficulties in their lives that drugs and alcohol compound: family breakdown, inadequate housing, offending, truancy, anti-social behaviour, poor educational attainment, and mental health concerns such as self-harm. This means that specialist drug and alcohol services function most effectively as part of an inter-disciplinary support package which helps the young person now and prevents further problems in adulthood.

Main findings

The number of under-18s being treated for substance misuse in England has fallen each year from a peak of 24,053 in financial year 2008/09 to 20,688 in 2011/12. Since there is no evidence of a log-jam in accessing services, the drop in numbers seems to represent a genuine fall in demand, reflecting falling drug use among the general population of young people.

Those receiving help primarily for heroin and other opiates fell to 211, about a quarter the level of six years ago. At 3%, the proportion of young people being treated primarily for these and other drugs in class A (the most serious) of the Misuse of Drugs Act was almost a third the proportion five years ago, and in numbers fell from a peak of 2050 in 2007/8 to 631. In the previous year the only drug category to increase in numbers (from 256 to 639) was the amphetamines, probably because the figures included mephedrone, It was made a controlled drug in 2010, so now figures in these statistics. widely used as a 'legal high' in recent years. In this latest year though the figure fell back to 493.

All these figures are dwarfed by the number of under-18s accessing services for problems with cannabis, a record 13,200 in 2011/12, despite falls in use among the general population. The explanations may include stronger strains of the drug and greater awareness of cannabis use problems among generic and specialist services. Alcohol is the next most common drugs, though the numbers fell from 7054 in the previous year to 5884. Together cannabis and alcohol accounted for 92% of patients.

Most of the young patients (80%) were living with their parents or other relatives, about half were in mainstream education, and further fifth in alternative education, either at pupil referral units or at home. Another fifth were not in education or employment. Beyond their substance use they usually suffered from a range of other emotional and social issues such as self-harming, offending, not being in education or employment, or teenage pregnancy or parenthood.

The single most common way young people found their way in to specialist addiction services was via the youth justice system (accounting for 38%), followed by education (21%) and referral by self, family or friends (11%) or social care agencies (10%). Virtually all were helped within three weeks, on average within two days.

On average young patients spent just over five months in treatment at specialist services. While there, over 80% received a psychosocial intervention (sometimes in combination with other interventions, such as harm reduction advice and family work) such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and motivational techniques. Just 1% were prescribed medications.

Proportion of leavers successfully completing treatment

While the number of young people entering treatment has been falling, the proportion of who leave treatment having successfully completed it has risen. In the first year statistics were collected (2005/06), 48% of leavers left as planned having overcome their drug or alcohol problem, a figure which has since risen steadily to 77% chart. Correspondingly, the proportion of leavers who dropped out of treatment before completing it has fallen from 29% in 2005/06 to 12% in 2011/12.

The authors' conclusions

Overall the statistics show that specialist substance misuse services continue to quickly and effectively engage young people, and that any young person who needs the help and support of such services is likely to do well. The system is working, and with fewer and fewer under-18s coming into specialist services the outlook is positive. But we should not relax our guard. However, drop in numbers could be quickly reversed by the long-term effects of the recession and new drug trends. More established drugs also pose serious questions: cannabis and alcohol remain the key problem substances, and the evidence suggests that those who use them are doing so more intensively than ever.


Findings logo commentary The featured report is a companion to a similar one released the previous year on adult addiction treatment. Mirroring the featured report at the next age band up, it revealed a sharp decline in the numbers of young adults (aged 18–24) presenting to adult treatment services in recent years for the most serious problem drugs, heroin and crack, while cannabis use has become more of a concern, and was the only problem in respect of which increasing numbers of young adults were entering treatment. In 2009/10 it overtook heroin (without other drugs) as the biggest category of drug for 18–24s coming into treatment; the following year the respective figures were 4493 for cannabis and 3253 for heroin.

The crime reduction benefits of treating adult heroin and crack users are not so clear among young patients, who mainly use other types of drugs, but still immediate impacts plus the longer term forestalling of further problems has been calculated to more than justify the costs of treating under-18 patients.

One striking but possibly misleading figure in the featured report is the apparently minor role of therapeutic work involving the patient's family. This type of intervention (with or without others) was recorded for just 4% of patients, yet 80% were living were living with their families, and such approaches are recognised as among the most appropriate and effective for what are often multiply troubled youngsters. It could be that working with families is actually much more common, but not as a formal therapy thought to warrant ticking that box in the returns to the monitoring system, or that family dynamics are dealt with not by the addiction service, but by partner agencies. However, there does seem a real deficit. Based on the evidence, British practice standards on the care of young people with substance misuse problems published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists commend family work, but comment that this is not standard in British services.

The standards also offer an additional possible explanation for recently falling numbers in treatment – the sometimes substantial withdrawal of funding and curtailing of services, an explanation implicitly denied by the featured report on the basis that no queues are apparent at the doors of youth addiction treatment services. However, it could still be the case that referring agencies are sending fewer young patients to these services because they no longer have the same capacity to recognise, assess and act on their needs.

The assumption made by the featured report that increasing proportions who successfully complete treatment (patients judged no longer dependent or in need of treatment) is evidence of increasingly successful treatment rests partly on an analysis of adult patients leaving treatment for drug problems in 2005/06. Over the next four years, 57% who left having successfully completed avoided being officially recorded as problematic users of illegal drugs, neither being picked up by criminal justice system nets intended to identify problem drug users, nor returning to treatment on their own initiatives. This record of 57% seemingly staying recovered from their dependence compared with 43% among patients who left without having successfully completed treatment. That successful rather than unsuccessful treatment is more likely to be followed by lasting recovery is also suggested by another analysis showing that the reduction in criminal convictions is greater among the successful completers in the two years after they leave treatment compared to the two years before. However, successful completion was less influential among users of drugs other than opiates and crack.

Without making any specific reservations about the featured report, it should be borne in mind that analysts with an interest in the success of a programme they are evaluating tend to produce more positive analyses than independent analysts – in research terms, the 'allegiance effect'. In several social research areas,1 programme developers and other researchers with an interest in the programme's success have been found to record more positive findings than fully independent researchers.

1. See articles at the following web addresses:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11292-009-9071-y
http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0193841X06287188
http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.6.1.95
It is part of the remit of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse to have an interest in the success of addiction treatment in England, to improve this, and to show this has been done by producing reports such as the featured report.

Last year's equivalent report offers further commentary and details on some topics.

Last revised 02 November 2012. First uploaded 01 November 2012

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Top 10 most closely related documents on this site. For more try a subject or free text search

DOCUMENT 2011 Substance misuse among young people: 2010–11

STUDY 2015 Specialist substance misuse treatment for young people in England 2013–14

DOCUMENT 2013 Drug treatment in England 2012–13

STUDY 2014 Drug treatment in England 2013–14

STUDY 2009 The Drug Treatment Outcomes Research Study (DTORS): final outcomes report

STUDY 2011 Specialist drug and alcohol services for young people – a cost benefit analysis

STUDY 2013 Multidimensional family therapy lowers the rate of cannabis dependence in adolescents: A randomised controlled trial in Western European outpatient settings

DOCUMENT 2011 Drug treatment and recovery in 2010–11

STUDY 2011 Treatment of adolescents with a cannabis use disorder: Main findings of a randomized controlled trial comparing multidimensional family therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy in The Netherlands

REVIEW 2012 BAP updated guidelines: evidence-based guidelines for the pharmacological management of substance abuse, harmful use, addiction and comorbidity: recommendations from BAP





Protecting young people from alcohol related harm.

Research by Design Ltd.
Solihull, UK: Research by Design Ltd, 2009.
Unable to obtain a copy by clicking title? Try this alternative source.

Case studies from across the UK of innovation, good practice and productive cooperation in encouraging and enforcing compliance with laws banning sale of alcohol to under-18s and reducing related public nuisance, offering road-tested good ideas for other areas.

Summary In 2008 the British government's Local Better Regulation Office (now dissolved) commissioned evaluations of several work-based projects focused on preventing underage access to alcohol, improving compliance with the Licensing Act 2003, and reducing alcohol-related harm. Projects intended to tackle under-age drinking and its consequences were selected to provide examples of good practice by local enforcement authorities across the UK. They were based in Blackpool, Lancashire, Brighton and Hove, Cambridgeshire, Aberystwyth, and in respect of under-21 ban schemes, in Redcar and Cleveland, Armadale in West Lothian, Stenhousemuir, and Hampshire. Details were gathered from the local authorities and police responsible for developing initiatives to reduce underage access to alcohol, information available in the public domain, and a telephone survey. The featured report details each example. What follows is based on the concluding remarks and recommendations.

Conclusions

Surveys of licensees demonstrated an overwhelming desire by most to comply with the Licensing Act 2003 in a coordinated approach in which everyone is working together to prevent underage access to alcohol and prevent alcohol-related crime and disorder. Licensees reported that young people trying to buy alcohol is the most common problem across the study areas. Refusal results in staff being verbally abused, intimidated and threatened.

These problems have given rise to the use of tools and the development of initiatives to address them by local authorities, the police and other partners. Licensees wanted to be involved in these initiatives because they helped them comply with legislation as well as contributing to a reduction in anti-social behaviour, an improved working environment for their staff, and a better shopping environment for their customers.

The national Think/Challenge campaign encourages retailers to refuse sales of age-restricted products to anyone who appears to be under the age of 21 or 25 and who does not have an acceptable form of photo identification proving their purchase is legitimate. Among licensees awareness of the campaign was high, as was participation. By and large it is considered a very effective initiative.

Most licensees were also aware of test purchasing exercises undertaken by their local enforcement authorities, in which people who might be under age try to purchase alcohol and the results are monitored by enforcement authorities. Awareness was at its height in Blackpool, where there is 'zero tolerance' Licensees caught selling to underage young people twice in a three-month period are referred to the licensing committee for a licence review. In 2007/08 43 licensed premises were subjected to review, resulting in two revocations, 39 suspensions of between two and eight weeks with extra conditions imposed, and two licences having additional conditions imposed. Test purchase compliance levels leapt from 63% in May 2008 to 93% by November 2008. to under-age sales. The featured study found that authorities which each year test-purchase at least 15% of their licensed premises achieve a higher level of licensee compliance (ie, requiring ID to prove legal purchase age) than those which test far fewer. Test purchase exercises are generally readily accepted and felt to be effective, though a minority of licensees are critical. Their effectiveness is questioned when the purchasers or the circumstances of the purchase make it obvious that it is a test purchase, or where the exercise has been leaked, so staff are on their guard. Effectiveness is also questioned when premises caught selling to underage volunteers are seen as not adequately punished, considered unfair to those who stick rigidly to requiring ID from young people before a sale. Some licensees would prefer the resources to be used to help them prevent sales in-store and to catch 'proxy' purchasers buying drink for underage drinkers, and there are also those who argue that test purchasing is an attempt by the enforcement authorities to 'catch them out', especially when volunteers look over 18. These licensees are clearly not as engaged with the Think/Challenge campaigns as they might like to believe and have clearly not bought into the message 'no ID, no sale'.

Licensees commented about the justice and fairness of punishments and trading environments in relation to several issues. Those working hard to comply with legislation and turning away sales want to see those less vigilant caught and appropriately punished. They also want fairness – all premises competing on a level playing field. This is especially relevant in the under-21 ban Initiated by Cleveland Police who piloted a voluntary under-21 ban over a three-month period in 2006 in Saltburn on Sea to address a local problem of youths being in possession of alcohol, antisocial behaviour, public disorder and low level crime. At the end of the pilot, police reported a reduction in complaints about nuisance and rowdiness and also in the amount of alcohol seized from youngsters on the street. Retailers voted to keep the ban in place. areas, where licensees voluntarily agree not to sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 21 years at certain times, normally Friday and Saturday nights. It was felt that no one premises should be permitted to opt out and achieve financial gain at the expense of others. Perceived lack of fairness simply leads to resentment and a breakdown For example, in Armadale a voluntary six-week pilot ban was introduced along with a Challenge 25 policy, whereby anyone appearing under the age of 25 was asked to produce some evidence of age. A robust enforcement approach of reporting offending retailers to the procurator fiscal and to the district council licensing board was also taken, and helped drive up test purchase compliance rates to 82%. During the ban the number of calls received relating to youths and alcohol use fell. Although licensees were positive about the ban and wished to continue with the scheme, two premises that were part of larger chains were instructed by their head office not to continue. As it was agreed that all retailers in the area would need to take part for the scheme to be successful, the initiative was discontinued by all but one retailer. of the schemes.

Under-21 bans have acted as a quick way to reduce the number of young people hanging around off-license premises on Friday and Saturday evenings, and to reduce anti-social behaviour. Formed in tight geographical areas (restricted to suburbs of larger towns and cities or small easily defined areas within towns), the bans have been most effective when all licensees in off-sales premises have agreed to take part. However, these measures can create dispersion problems for other areas, highlighted by the number of surrounding towns and communities which subsequently requested participation in the schemes. Effectiveness has undoubtedly been improved when coupled with other initiatives, such as neighbourhood police teams and more robust enforcement against anyone caught buying, selling or having alcohol about them in a public place.

Licensees engaged in localised community schemes felt most informed and supported. Support from enforcement authorities was welcomed, enforcement activity being seen as reducing anti-social behaviour and improving compliance levels. Engagement and partnership working can deliver real benefits for the community as a whole. Placing enforcement officers in high-risk premises to support licensees and their staff and deter underage alcohol purchase attempts is welcomed, as is having the phone numbers of local enforcement officers who can respond quickly to underage purchase attempts. Licensees also requested more promotional material that can be used to raise awareness and to support them in refusing underage sales.

Often local media stories highlight premises which have failed a test purchase attempt. Licensees also asked to be informed when their premises has been included in a test purchase exercise and found to be compliant, evidencing a desire to engage more fully with the regimen and be reassured that staff are behaving correctly.

Some licensees resent being penalised for an inadvertent sale when young purchasers are unpunished and no deterrents are applied. When an underage sale takes place, most think they would be served with a fixed-penalty notice not recorded as a criminal conviction. Others think they would be required to attend a licensing review, but very few identified a court appearance as a likely penalty. A statutory defence to an offence of underage selling is that the seller has taken all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to prevent an offence being committed. In addition to having other measures in place, a seller should if in any doubt ask for age-related identification. In this respect it would help if community safety partnerships were able to fund the free and widespread issue For example, in Aberystwyth proof-of-age cards are provided to secondary school and college pupils free of charge and licensees are encouraged to always ask for ID if they are unsure of a person's age. Two local sports shops offer cardholders a discount, considered an incentive for young people to apply for a card. of proof-of-age cards to young people. Working with licensees would enable them to identify fake cards, and such schemes would reduce dependence on young customers producing a passport or photo driving licence, documents with a street value which makes them liable to theft.

Multiagency approaches have been a key to the success of the case study projects. In Aberystwyth the licensed trade, university and various council departments were being blamed for noise and disturbance in the town at night, but once they all met, it became apparent that no one sector was to blame. Working together, they have been able to deliver real improvements The biggest identified problem was noise late at night as people made their way home through residential parts of the town. A Sshhh campaign was introduced and noise complaints have dropped. for the town. Licensees agreed to notify police of any forthcoming large event so relevant agencies can put in place plans and resources to deal with it in a proactive manner, rather than having to react to problems as they arise on the night. The role of the Night Time Economy Co-ordinator has been pivotal.

To varying extents, many case study areas have included educational elements to change the local drinking culture. Lancashire in particular has taken an expansive educational route The three year Alcohol: Protecting Children and Improving Communities multi-agency project took a holistic approach to alcohol-related ill health, producing education materials for teachers, a web site for primary schools, an alcohol awareness teaching package for secondary schools, a pupil's alcohol conference and a campaign to raise awareness among parents. Lancashire has also adopted a high profile media campaign, undertaken extensive consultation with 9–13-year-olds, provided support to licensees through training seminars, an interactive DVD package, and an option for traders caught selling to underage youngsters to attend an age-restricted products training course rather than receive a fixed penalty or go to court. to promote cultural change as the basis for its initiatives.

One of the learning outcomes of the featured study has been that projects can be more effectively delivered with increased financial efficiency when funding is in place prior to delivery. Of the difficulties identified in delivering these multi-agency projects, funding stands out. Often success depends on the ability to attract funding from within a local authority, the police, or by way of grant from elsewhere. Unless a project has only a short life, and funding by way of a grant is preferable, multi-agency projects need to be built into mainstream funding or baseline budgets.

Key recommendations

• Initiatives should be developed and implemented through collaborative working with all parties that have an interest in preventing underage access to alcohol and alcohol-related crime and disorder, including licensees.
• All parties should be kept informed of the progress and successes of initiatives including the outcomes of test purchases.
• Licensees should also be regularly reminded of the support available from the police and enforcement officers to overcome specific problems and encouraged to use it.
• Licensees should be advised when enforcement officers are working in their area and they should call in, even if briefly, to raise their awareness and visibility.
• Proof-of-age cards should be readily available within local communities, free of charge, to give the cards the focus licensees require and to marginalise fake IDs.
• More extensive training should also be available to licensees on how to identify fake IDs.
• Greater efforts need to be made by enforcing authorities to clamp down on proxy For example, in Brighton trading standards and police have undertaken an intelligence gathering operation to quantify the problem, provide a clear message to the public, and identify the types of premises adults prefer to purchase from. By engaging young volunteers to ask members of the public to buy alcohol for them, they were able to intercept those agreeing before the offence was committed and issue a warning. From a total of 29 requests, 11 members of the public agreed to buy alcohol. Most went to a convenience store in preference to a dedicated off-licence to make their purchase. sales.
• Licensees should be supplied promotional materials to support them in avoiding underage sales.
• Adequate funding needs to be identified to support multi-agency projects prior to service delivery.

Last revised 04 November 2012. First uploaded 04 November 2012

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STUDY 2011 Achieving positive change in the drinking culture of Wales

DOCUMENT 2012 The government's alcohol strategy

STUDY 2008 Internationally proven community alcohol crime and harm reduction programmes feasible in Britain

DOCUMENT 2011 European drug prevention quality standards: a manual for prevention professionals

REVIEW 2011 Alcohol and drug prevention in nightlife settings: a review of experimental studies

REVIEW 2011 Interventions for disorder and severe intoxication in and around licensed premises, 1989–2009

STUDY 2010 Cracking down on youth tobacco may influence drug use

STUDY 2011 An evaluation of the implementation of the objectives of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005; first interim report summary

STUDY 2013 An evaluation of the implementation of, and compliance with, the objectives of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005: final report

STUDY 2001 Persistent and credible enforcement needed to prevent widespread alcohol sales to under-18s





Alcohol and drug screening of occupational drivers for preventing injury.

Cashman C.M., Ruotsalainen J., Greiner B.A. et al.
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: 2009, 2, Art. No.: CD006566.

Exhaustive search finds just two rigorous studies of workplace testing for alcohol and/or drug use of people employed as drivers. For drugs there was some evidence of a long-term effect in averting injuries and deaths but in respect of both drugs and alcohol the evidence was too thin to support any particular policy.

Summary Testing employees in the workplace for alcohol and drug use is commonplace in some countries but its effect in reducing occupational injuries remains unclear. This review for the Cochrane collaboration aimed to assess the effects of testing for alcohol and drug use among people whose job involves driving a motor vehicle, in particular whether this helps prevent injury or work-related effects such as sickness absence related to injury.

The analysts searched for studies which compared testing interventions with another intervention or no intervention and collected relevant outcome data. In principle included were studies which randomly allocated drivers or workplaces to testing or not, and those which assessed the effects of testing by before and after measures.

Only two such studies were found, both from the USA, and both were variants of a before versus after research design. One was conducted in five large US transportation companies that carried passengers and/or cargo to examine the association between occupational injuries and the introduction of federally required alcohol and (separately) drug testing. In this study two interventions were evaluated: mandatory random drug testing, and mandatory random and 'for-cause' (ie, when there was reason to believe the employee had been drinking) alcohol testing programmes. Another study focused only on mandatory random drug testing and based on federal injury data that covered all lorry drivers working for interstate carriers.

Main findings

The analysts recalculated the results from raw data provided by the study authors. In one study, mandatory random and for-cause alcohol testing was associated with a significant decrease in the frequency of injuries immediately following the intervention, but there was no significant change in the existing long-term downward trend.

Mandatory random drug testing was significantly associated with an immediate increase in the frequency of injuries following the intervention in one study, and in the second study there was no significant link. However, in both studies random drug testing was associated with a significant further dip in the long-term downward trend in the frequency of injuries or fatal accidents.

The authors' conclusions

There was some limited evidence that in the long term, mandatory drug testing can be more effective than no intervention in reducing injuries in occupational drivers. For mandatory alcohol testing, there was evidence of an immediate effect only. The state of the evidence is insufficient to be able to advise for or against drug and alcohol testing of occupational drivers as the sole long-term solution to preventing injuries in the context of workplace culture, peer interaction and other local factors.

Last revised 04 March 2014. First uploaded 05 November 2012

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REVIEW 2011 A new paradigm for long-term recovery

DOCUMENT 2012 Will intensive testing and sanctions displace treatment?

HOT TOPIC 2015 Will intensive testing and sanctions displace treatment?

REVIEW 2010 Testing for cannabis in the work-place: a review of the evidence

STUDY 2005 Communities can reduce drink-driving deaths

STUDY 2010 Is 24/7 Sobriety a good goal for repeat driving under the influence (DUI) offenders?

STUDY 2009 The 24/7 Sobriety Project

STUDY 2010 South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety program evaluation findings report

STUDY 2006 Drink-driving cut by 30-minute talk with hospital patients

STUDY 2000 Injuries reduced even when interventions do not stop problem drinkers drinking





Drug law resentencing: saving tax dollars with minimal community risk.

Gibney W., Davidson T.
New York, USA: The Legal Aid Society, 2010.
Unable to obtain a copy by clicking title? Try this alternative source.

In 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller introduced drug law sanctions condemning relatively minor offenders to up to life in prison. In the mid-2000s the prisoners were allowed to petition for release. Very few were re-imprisoned due to new offences, suggesting the original sentences were usually not needed to protect the community from drug crime.

Summary This paragraph establishing the background to the featured report derives from other documents. The laws enacted in 1973 in New York by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws required extremely long prison terms for possession or sale of relatively small amounts of drugs, including mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for possession of just four ounces of illegal drugs, about the same as for some forms of murder. The penalties applied even to first time, non-violent drug offenders. The laws drove an unprecedented explosion of the prison population and became the national model for being 'tough on drugs'. Many states enacted their own versions. Nationally too, in the 1980s the US Congress agreed long mandatory minimums for drug offences.

The Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Act of 2009 was the third of a series of reforms allowing some serving sentences under the Rockefeller Drug Laws to apply to be re-sentenced in accordance with new sentencing frameworks generally imposing shorter sentences. The first was enacted in 2004, replacing the old 'indeterminate' sentences featuring long minimum and maximum terms with shorter, flat 'determinate' sentences. People sentenced as A-I felons under the old law could apply to be re-sentenced in accordance with the new framework. At the time, 473 were considered eligible to apply. In 2005, a more modest reform was enacted which allowed some people (estimated at around 550) serving sentences for the next most severe level of drug convictions, the A-II felonies, to apply for re-sentencing.

In order to assess the strength and validity of objections to the third round of reforms, this study reviewed the recidivism record of offenders released in the first two rounds. In September 2009 the analysts obtained a list of people resentenced and released under the terms of the 2004 (279 people) and 2005 (297 people) reforms. These were checked against the records of the New York State Department of Correctional Services to determine whether each had ever been re-imprisoned.

Main findings

In summary, the study found that 8.5% of people released early from prison under the reforms were later re-imprisoned, considerably fewer than among drug offenders released in the usual way after serving their sentences. Over the three years after leaving prison, the re-imprisonment rate for those released early was about three times better than after the highly praised 'Shock' offender rehabilitation programme.

Of the re-sentenced A-I felony cases, 19 of 279 people later returned to prison, seven because they had committed a new felony offence rather than due to technical parole violations. Of the re-sentenced A-II felony cases, 30 of 297 returned to prison, just six because they had committed a new felony offence.

Over the three or four years after their release in 2005 or 2006, about 11% of early release offenders returned to prison, about 4% due to new offences. These figures can be compared to the re-imprisonment rate for drug offenders released in the normal way of nearly 40% over three years, 11% due to new offences. Another comparison is with New York's six-month 'boot camp' Shock programme which focuses on treatment of low-risk prisoners, an usually high number of whom are drug offenders. Considered highly successful in reducing recidivism, over the three years after leaving the programme about 31% of offenders were re-imprisoned, about 15% for new offences.

The authors' conclusions

Despite warnings of dangerous consequences by district attorneys, so far people released early under drug law reforms have proven a low risk to the community. Early release from prison has not only created considerable cost savings, but has also resulted in a very low rate of return to prison. The data supports the legislative judgment that the old drug law sentences were excessive and longer than necessary to protect the community. The process by which judges exercise discretion in deciding, on a case by case basis, who among eligible people should be re-sentenced and for what length of time is proving to act as an effective screen. Most those re-sentenced and released have not committed new crimes.

Last revised 03 November 2012. First uploaded 03 November 2012

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