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Drug Prison Sentencing Reaches Five Year High

New data from the Ministry of Justice finds more black and minority ethnic people are being incarcerated for drug offences, with white offenders less likely to go to prison

Inside a UK prison. Photo: Jack Sullivan/Alamy

Drug Prison Sentencing Reaches Five Year High

New data from the Ministry of Justice finds more black and minority ethnic people are being incarcerated for drug offences, with white offenders less likely to go to prison

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The proportion of convicted drug offenders that are sent to prison reached a five-year high in 2021, according to latest figures

Data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reveals that 27% of all convicted drug offenders in 2021 in England and Wales were sentenced to immediate custody. This is almost 5% higher than in 2017 – although the majority of sentences for drug offences remain non-custodial. At 40,820 sentences, the number of convicted drug offenders is also at a five-year high. 

The figures are particularly alarming for black and minority ethnic people, who are more likely than their white peers to be imprisoned for the crime. White offenders, meanwhile, receive suspended sentences in greater numbers than black and Asian offenders. 

In addition, the rate of imprisonment is accelerating fastest for black and Asian people. While the proportion of white offenders sentenced to custody for all drug crimes increased by 2% between 2020 and 2021, it increased by 5% for Asian offenders and by 3% for black offenders. Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, told Byline Times that these sentencing outcomes are “fundamentally racist”. 

“This data shows how the burden of our failing drug laws falls most heavily on the socially and economically marginalised individuals and communities, particularly black youth in urban areas,” he said.

The data comes six months after the Government published its ten-year drug strategy. Although the strategy emphasised the need to reverse years of cuts to drug treatment services, government spin surrounding the announcement stressed their commitment to being tough on violent crime and to crack down on supply. 

Writing in the British Medical Journal last year, Rolles welcomed the “overdue” treatment elements of the strategy, but described the enforcement elements as “groundhog day for the war on drugs”.

Of the latest data, Rolles told Byline Times that ”punitive drug enforcement has been shown to be expensive and counterproductive. The stigma of criminal records and histories of incarceration makes…reoffending and problematic drugs use more likely, not less. We need to begin an adult discussion about how drug markets can be responsibly legally regulated”.

Dr. Roger Grimshaw, research director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, told Byline Times that he believes “the Government’s approach to drugs policy as a whole has been flawed and equivocal, still remaining in combat mode, while drug consumption and deaths have trended upwards”.


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Sentencing Types 

The data published by the MoJ shows a decline in community sentences for convicted drug offenders. This includes referrals for drug treatment for those convicted of possession. 

Just under one in 10 (9.6%) of drug offenders were given a community sentence in 2021, compared to around 13% in 2017. Community sentences can also be given to dealers, even those convicted of supplying class A drugs, if it is clear the offender is low down in the supply chain – typically the case for most street dealers. 

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, described the latest statistics as “bleak”. 

“There is no evidence that imprisonment acts as a deterrent to further offending. Rather, people imprisoned for drug offences are being thrust into violent environments where drugs are readily available,” he said. “The answer to these problems is not greater use of prison, but effective community sentences enabling people to access services that can turn their lives around. It is long past time for the Government to address the damaging trends in sentencing”.

For all drug offences, white people were marginally less likely to be sentenced to immediate custody (26%) than black people (27%). Asian offenders were most likely to be sentenced to immediate custody (31%). 

That racial disparity increases dramatically, however, when looking at sentencing patterns for specific drugs: most notably the supply of crack cocaine. 86% and 81% respectively of black and Asian people convicted of supplying crack cocaine receive a custodial sentence. In contrast, only 66% of white offenders convicted of the same crime will end up in prison. 

Supplying drugs is often a low-level offence and likely to be committed by street dealers – in 2021, 5,114 were convicted for supplying cannabis, cocaine, heroin, MDMA or crack cocaine. In contrast, only 142 people were convicted for being involved in the more serious offence of importing class A drugs.

White drug offenders were also more likely than their black and minority ethnic peers to receive a suspended sentence for drug offences. A total of 15.5% of white offenders were given a suspended sentence, compared to 11.5% of black offenders and 12.5% of Asian offenders. 

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Again, the disparity increased when the offence was supplying crack cocaine. Black people are a third less likely than their white peers to receive a suspended sentence for this crime – 28% of white people convicted get a suspended sentence, compared to only 10% of black offenders. 

Community sentences are particularly in decline when it comes to possession charges. Back in 2017, 14% of people convicted of possession of heroin received a community sentence – this has since decreased to 9%. 

Most convicted offenders just receive a fine (64%), while others are discharged on certain conditions (13%). 5% were sent to prison, down from 9% in 2017. 

Racial disparities persist in this crime, too – the number of Asian people jailed for possession of heroin was double (9.5%) that of white offenders. 

A Government spokesperson told Byline Times: “While sentencing decisions are made by independent courts, we are tackling the deep-rooted reasons why people from ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

“From charging decisions through to sentencing, a huge programme of work is underway to tackle discrimination including training to remove bias and supporting those from underrepresented groups to become judges.”

Currently, 9% of judges and 14% of magistrates in England and Wales are from ethnic minority backgrounds.   

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