OAS member states highlight importance of alternatives to incarceration for drug related offenders

Vienna, Austria — The executive secretary of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States (OAS), Paul Simons, last week moderated a debate held in Vienna, Austria, in the framework of the meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) of the United Nations, in which several member states of the OAS emphasized the importance of alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offences.
During the meeting of high-level officials from Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States, as well as several OAS observer countries, participants discussed the development and implementation of alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenders.

Michael Botticelli, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) of the United States; Roberto Campa, undersecretary of prevention and citizen participation in the ministry of the interior of Mexico; Ivor Archie, chief justice of Trinidad and Tobago; and Art Wyatt, from the United States Department of Justice, invited United Nations member states to participate in the debate promoted by the OAS through CICAD.

“While making sure that we do not cross the line in offering impunity, many countries in the hemisphere are moving ahead with offering feasible alternatives in different judicial-penal stages to small scale, non-violent drug related offenders,” Simons said.

“It is a challenge to convince public opinion, especially in countries with high crime rates, of the importance of developing these alternatives in which police, the justice system and the health sector, for instance, work together to find creative solutions,” he added.

Miguel Samper, vice minister for crime policy and restorative justice of Colombia, one of the countries leading this effort at the regional level, said, “We need to ensure that our penal systems are used as the last resource.”

In that context, Botticelli said, “Locking people up for minor drug offences, especially individuals with untreated substance use disorders, does not work.”

He added, “In promoting reform we are not suggesting that illegal behavior be ignored, or that drug use and sales are not serious matters. The point is that there are better alternatives than prison for people with low-level drug offences.”

Archie said that, in his country, “the search for alternatives to incarceration is driven by a growing understanding of drug dependency or addiction as a public health issue and a critical examination of the social and economic environment.”

He noted that this had been enhanced by the fact that “the Trinidad and Tobago Court of Appeal has recently declared mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences to be arbitrary and unconstitutional, thereby giving judges greater flexibility in designing sanctions that are appropriate for the particular circumstances.”

For his part, Campa highlighted, “Prioritization of the individual’s punishment has caused serious social welfare costs; therefore, a paradigm shift is necessary today in the justice administration and law enforcement; a change that emphasizes the implementation of measures and penalties according to the individual and the type of misbehavior.”

In the last few years, many of the countries in the Americas have experienced a significant increase in the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offences. The length of sentences for these offences have an important relationship to prison overcrowding – a problem experienced by many countries in the region. The importance of judicial and sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration has been discussed by a growing number of countries in and outside of the Americas.

Several OAS countries are working within the framework of their regional drug commission CICAD to present a menu of alternatives to incarceration for the UN special General Assembly on drugs in 2016.

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