Alternatives to coercive sanctions are recognised as having the potential to reduce drug-related harms by diverting offenders with drug problems into programmes that may help them tackle their substance misuse issues, which often underpin their offending. Diverting offenders with problem drug use towards rehabilitative measures and away from incarceration can have a number of positive effects, such as preventing the damaging effects of detention and contributing to reducing the costs of the prison system (e.g. infrastructure, staff, etc.). However, few programmes have been evaluated to date and therefore the evidence base is limited. Where there have been evaluations, these have mostly been undertaken outside Europe with generally weak designs.
There are many different types of alternatives to coercive sanctions, and these may be applied at different stages of the criminal justice process, from arrest to sentencing. A recent European study found 13 different forms of alternatives to coercive sanctions available in the 27 EU Member States. These ranged from a simple caution, warning or no action, to referral to specialised drug treatment. Alternatives to prison are a specific type of alternative to coercive sanctions and include receiving a suspended sentence conditional on attending drug treatment or agreeing to undergo treatment in prison to shorten the incarceration period.
Although the evidence is not strong, the key to success seems to be having a range of interventions available that are appropriate to the needs of individuals with different types and levels of drug problems. Studies are needed to improve the evidence base around alternatives to coercive sanctions, with a particular focus on the groups that can benefit most from them and the stages of the criminal justice process at which they are best applied.