Time to let non-violent drug offenders out of jail
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Time to let non-violent drug offenders out of jail

Prisoners gather in Klong Prem Prison in Bangkok last year. The Covid-19 outbreak risks the lives of inmates linked to non-violent drug crime. (Photo by Pornprom Sattrabhaya)
Prisoners gather in Klong Prem Prison in Bangkok last year. The Covid-19 outbreak risks the lives of inmates linked to non-violent drug crime. (Photo by Pornprom Sattrabhaya)

Outdated criminal and correctional laws are threatening the lives of over 1.6 million people incarcerated for non-violent offences. Countries are failing to meet their basic needs and rights. They are also depriving societies of a vital workforce. By releasing people incarcerated for non-violent offences in order to control the Covid-19 pandemic in prisons, authorities in very different parts of the world are implicitly admitting that the drug sentences were unnecessarily harsh and disproportionate, and that many incarcerated people could have lived through better alternatives than prison to pay their duty to society -- if any.

When France, some US states, Turkey, Indonesia, and other jurisdictions released prisoners as part of their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, their decision quickly made it to the headlines but, surprisingly, faced no opposition or ideological resistance.

Neither did it spark a long overdue debate.

Their move exposed the precarious health and safety conditions in which millions of people are incarcerated around the world and the devastating emotional impact on their loved ones; it was an opportunity to question the inability of our societies to meet basic needs of incarcerated people, but also the very relevance of mass detention for certain categories of offences.

Incarcerated people are exposed to risks for which they are not well-equipped. They are dependent on those who manage their daily lives and find themselves trapped in the paradox of incarceration: the deprivation of liberty entails the inability to think for oneself and to support oneself, albeit when living in a violent, promiscuous, and isolated environment.

Correctional workers are also in a very difficult situation: They need to strike a balance between enforcing the punishment and catering to the basic needs and fundamental rights of those incarcerated. When they fail, that's often because they lack resources and psychological support.

What is truly revealing from the Covid-19 crisis is that, for the past 30 years, we have chosen to over-incarcerate the most vulnerable people in our societies including non-violent, petty criminals, at a jaw-dropping human and economic cost.

Research shows staggering data: Out of the two million people incarcerated globally for drug-related offences, 83% are in jail because of the simple possession or use of an illegal drug; and another 600,000 people at least are detained against their own will in drug treatment facilities in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Countries collectively chose prohibition as the unique model to eliminate drug use, production and illegal traffic. Not only did they abandon the control of an extremely profitable market to criminal organisations, they allowed them to maintain a strong hold on poor, marginalised and criminalised populations.

In Colombia, only 2% of people incarcerated on drug charges were in intermediary or top positions in drug trafficking organisations. In Tunisia, 90% of people arrested on drug charges (mostly young men) are serving a term of at least one year behind bars for simple use or possession. These are only two examples among a long list of evidence collected worldwide.

These young women and men could have been dynamic, essential members of communities and families, much needed at a time of a global health crisis that we are presently living through. Instead, they are sitting behind bars for acts and offences of minimal seriousness.

We would argue that there is an undeniable case to accelerate the release, globally, of people incarcerated for non-violent drug-related offences, in order to protect their lives, those of correctional workers, and their communities in face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We have led the governments of Brazil, Switzerland and New Zealand -- three very different countries. But we are unanimous and emphatic in our call to reform criminal justice that allows for the introduction of sentences proportionate to the offence they are to punish. A fair and equitable society must abide by the principle that punishment should be commensurate to the crime and achieve its multiple objectives, including dissuasion and social reintegration. In this sense, incarceration should always remain the measure of last resort.

The current global crisis is an opportunity for countries to live up to the challenge of addressing the living conditions of people deprived of liberty and design correctional policies that uphold their fundamental rights, in order to reduce the abuse and violence occurring behind prison walls.

No incarcerated person, and no correctional worker, should be deprived of their dignity, neither in times of crisis like this one nor when things return to relative normality.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso is former President of Brazil; Ruth Dreifuss is former President of Switzerland; and Helen Clark is former Prime Minister of New Zealand. Mr Cardoso, Ms Dreifuss and Ms Clark are respectively Founding Chair, Chair and Member of the Geneva-based Global Commission on Drug Policy.

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