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Why is rehabilitation treated as a punishment?

Smoking heroin

I was in court today for a duty session.  I represented a man with a long history of drug abuse and offending.  He had taken a ten-year break from crime and drugs, partly because he spent four-years in prison and partly because he met a woman, married and had kids.  A family breakdown has led him back to heroin.

In the past year he’s committed a couple of minor thefts and been found in possession of heroin, which is why I represented him today.

He agreed he needed help to kick the drugs and wanted me to apply for a pre-sentence report aimed at a community order with a drug rehabilitation requirement attached.

His instructions and the recent offending indicate an escalation in offending meaning it’s very likely that without support he will find himself back before the court having committed further offences.

Ultimately, my application for a PSR was refused on the basis that the offence was not sufficiently serious to warrant a punishment as serious as a community order.  In law, the court was quite right – the possession of a single wrap probably did not merit a community order.  In practice, they will find themselves sentencing this man again in the next few weeks when he commits further offences.

This leads me to ask the question: why do we treat rehabilitation as a punishment?

I have no idea why rehab isn’t imposed as an ancillary order rather than as a sentence.  There’s no reason why participation couldn’t still be mandatory but making the requirement ancillary to the sentence would enable the court to help more offenders get themselves clean and that means less crime for everyone else.


  1. Have you ever considered that the cost to the public purse might be involved in the decision? Until enforceable rehabilitation in a system where drug use is considered a medical problem and not a criminal offence such people will forever be in and out of the courts (and prisons).

    1. Ordinarily I'd not dispute the cost factor; however, in this case I'm convinced that politicians don't want to act for fear of seeming weak on the front page of the Sun and Daily Mail.

      I am convinced that in the long run, getting people off hard drugs (and legalising a lot of currently illegal drugs) would be cheaper than the revolving door prison system we currently operate.

  2. If he wants drugs treatment for an addiction why doesn't he make an appointment and see his GP like everyone else with a medical complaint?

    1. He has and is receiving methadone for his habit.

      The reality is that most addicts will not be able to access any rehab via their GPs due to a lack of resources - I've heard many stories from many sources of GPs telling patients that they cannot access rehab until they have been convicted of a criminal offence!

      Secondly, there is the problem of will-power. It's well and good to say "he should have more will-power" but the truth is most of us lack the staying power when things get tough. If I had will power I'd be a rich, muscled Adonis rather than a fat defence brief.

  3. Unfortunately the justice system and virtually everyone involved is simply not interested in solving the problem before it becomes a major problem. They'd rather wait until everything goes haywire with the end huge cost result rather than spend a little up front to prevent the major problem from ever occurring. You only have to look at the NHS to see what decades of failure to address the issues way back when have caused.

  4. Robert the Biker14 January 2015 at 12:10

    "A couple of minor thefts"
    I wonder if the people this waste of oxygen robbed consider them minor? I wonder if the crimes for which he has NOT been caught (and let's not be silly here, he's a prolific offender) were also 'minor' and thus not worth complaining about.
    It seems to me that you have the wrong idea of what constitutes a victim here.
    This clown is in his predicament because he is a cheap crook and a scaghead, no other reason.

    1. First, I should make it clear that he wasn't in court that day for theft and that theft is not the same as robbery (although I realise you may have been using "robbed" in a less technical way). I don't know what the thefts were in the past but since the court dealt with them by discharge and then a very small fine I don't imagine they were very high value - I also recall that they were shopliftings but could be wrong.

      I'm not going to disagree with you about how he came to be in this predicament but there are different approaches people can take to resolving the situation. First, you can get into a cycle of locking him up, releasing him, crime, prison, release, crime, prison, etc. I'd suggest that does nobody any good because a) it guarantees more victims in the future; and b) it's quite expensive to keep somebody in prison.

      I take a more pragmatic approach, which is that we, as a society, should rehabilitated people like this man. If it makes you feel better about that approach you don't even have to be doing it for his own good - you can do it to prevent people becoming victims in the future!

      I think that's really the point, our current system does nothing to reduce re-offending. Moving to a system that actually reduces crime and thus reduces the burden on the state in terms of financing prison, policing and the courts as well as reducing the number of victims of crime has to be a good idea.

      Finally, you seem to have misunderstood what I was trying to do that day in court. I wasn't trying to get him an easier sentence I was arguing he should receive a TOUGHER sentence than the court wanted to impose! Community Orders with rehabilitation attached carry the threat of prison if he commits further offences OR fails to comply with the rehab! That's a much more serious position to be in than having to pay a small fine (which he doesn't have to pay anyway because it's deemed served by the weekend he spent in the police cells).

  5. Robert the Biker15 January 2015 at 15:37

    OK, I got slightly the wrong end of the stick regarding the sentencing, though I did find your comment that he'd been off the smack for ten years, four of them because he was in prison, rather telling (or funny if you have a twisted sense of humour like mine)
    It seems to me that we have here a man who is moderately capable of controlling his behaviour while in a regimented lifestyle (prison and marriage) not that I think of his wife as a jailer but that women tend to keep men going along a fairly predictable route. As soon as there is a hiccup, he directly reverts to the previous life, one he had been out of for years, fueled by crime. I daresay that the misery he causes his victims, whover they are, concerns him not at all* I do not see how returning him to the regimented existance will keep him off the stuff since he does not seem to have the internal control to moderate his actions once released, ultimately it is he who must break the cycle, otherwise instituthionalising him for the protection of those of us who don't like being robbed may be the best if not perhaps the kindest course.

    * A certain bike thief was pontificating to a pal in the pub about how the people he robbed shouldn't take it personally. This was in a Bikers pub he'd wandered into by mistake. Oh dear.
    It was explained to their remains that yes, it was taken VERY personally.


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