Plan to let drug addict thieves and dealers stay out of jail, as Justice Secretary denies scheme down to space

23 February 2024, 09:21 | Updated: 23 February 2024, 09:34

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has denied the scheme is driven by space constraints in prison
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk has denied the scheme is driven by space constraints in prison. Picture: Alamy
Charlotte Lynch

By Charlotte Lynch

Thieves and drug dealers whose addictions fuel their crimes will be let off without a prison sentence under a new plan, instead being ordered to return to court fortnightly to prove they are kicking the habit.

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The government plan will encourage judges to impose community orders for low-level offenders whose drug addiction drives their criminality, rather than sending them to jail, with a condition that they must prove they are engaging with support services.

If they don't comply with the conditions, they will be sent to prison.

The radical new plan from Justice Secretary Alex Chalk is already being trialled at Liverpool Crown Court, where LBC met convicted drug dealer 'Luke', who has been ordered to meet with a judge every two weeks as part of his sentence for possession with intent to supply cannabis.

'Luke' said he used to smoke "60 to 100 spliffs a day, smoking my life away", and his first suspended sentence for the same offence "felt like a slap on the wrist".

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Alex Chalk
Alex Chalk. Picture: Getty

The 29-year-old said his meetings with support workers had "dramatically changed [his] life for the better."

"I’m not sitting around all day smoking and I’m more involved with the kids than I ever have been," he said. "I’m thinking a whole lot clearer - I’ve never had a job, now I’m starting to think about getting a job."

He said the threat of being sent to jail if he fails to attend court has encouraged him to engage with the process.

He said: "I’ve got a 12-year-old and a two-year-old, I am a massive part of their lives and I don’t want to miss out on that.

"My two year old looks up to me like I’m the best thing in the world. Since I've quit smoking he’s now running around the house saying ‘Daddy’s happy’. I’m a lot happier now than I ever was when I was smoking."

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LBC observed the informal Intensive Supervision Court hearing, where 'Luke' presented the judge with a clean drugs sample and discussed his progress in meetings with drug support workers.

Sitting alongside the offender, without wearing a traditional wig and gown, the judge asked 'Luke' about his improved relationship with his children and how he hopes to apply for his first ever job within the next six months.

After the hearing, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk denied the scheme was a waste of judges' time, amidst the huge Crown Court backlog of more than 66,500.

"It’s a good use of time if it steers people away from crime," he said. "What you want to do is avoid the revolving door of people leaving the prison estate and going in to crime. Reoffending is down compared to 2010, it was around 31% in 2010 and it’s now about 25% - we want to drive it down further."

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Mr Chalk added: "It costs the community something like £18 billion a year, if this works to stop that revolving door of crime, it is time well spent."

He reassured the public that serious offenders would not be eligible for the scheme, saying a drug addict who is being violent, or threatening and using knives "should not have anything to do with this".

But he insisted "not every drug addict is the same".

Mr Chalk said that "someone who has lived a law abiding life, and worked hard at school, everything was going great – but his relationship with his girlfriend broke down and he turned to drugs – who actually, with a bit of support can get back in to the workplace and be a law abiding, taxpaying member of society, then yes - damn right we should be looking at how we can rehabilitate them."

He said judges had shown themselves to be the best people "to distinguish one drug addict from the other."

Asked if the scheme is designed to keep people out of prison because of a lack of space, Mr Chalk said: "Completely not – absolutely not. We have the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era.

"There will always be sufficient capacity to do what is my overwhelming priority – to keep the British people safe – and ensure that when the judge says in appropriate cases ‘stand up please Joe Bloggs, I have decided the only safe thing in this case is to lock you up’ we will make sure there will always be sufficient places so the order of that court can be complied with."