Tough Choices – drugs and criminal justice

Over the last 15 or so years, I have been involved in a series of research projects on drug interventions in the criminal justice system. I’m now at the point where I feel like I’ve said pretty much everything I ever want to about this topic! But my last word (or 80,000 words) on the subject, co-written with Lisa Williams and Rob Ralphs, will be published next year in book form by Oxford University Press in their Clarendon Studies in Criminology series. The book will be titled Tough Choices: Drug Policy and the Risk-Security Nexus, and below is a short extract from the concluding chapter which gives a flavour of what it’s about.

Our central task in this book has been to attempt to understand the emergence of the criminal justice turn within British drug policy. Why has the drug-crime link become in recent decades so central to how we view the drug question? And why has policy taken on the particular forms that it has, with the emphasis on using the criminal justice system to identify and target drug-using offenders in order to channel them into treatment? We briefly summarise here our main arguments.

In chapters two and three, we sought to answer these questions by setting the development of drug policy within the context of the ‘big picture’ of social change. We argued that the transition over the last 40 or so years from the welfare-liberalism of the middle twentieth century to an era of neo-liberalism at the turn of the twenty-first has changed the nature of the drug situation in Britain, greatly extending the reach and prevalence of ‘recreational’ drug use amongst young people and creating new pockets of severe neighbourhood drug problems (in which drugs, poverty, crime and worklessness coalesce). This transformation has generated new risks and insecurities which have, in turn, been understood and problematised in a distinctively neo-liberal way. These problematisations have posed new policy predicaments: drugs are everywhere (in the media, popular culture and society) and at the same time deeply problematic (linked to intractable problems of social exclusion and crime). The responses to these predicaments, of which the criminal justice turn is one part, have also, in turn, been shaped by the transition to neo-liberalism, becoming entwined with questions of risk and the governance of security. In chapter three, drawing on interviews with national policy actors, we sought to piece together in more fine-grained detail exactly how the policy was put together and developed at national level, focusing on the motives and intentions of these actors. Together, these two chapters set out an original account of how the evolution of the criminal justice turn in recent British drug policy can be understood as a (socially-structured and culturally-shaped) process of problem-solving action in the face of a new (socially-structured and politically-constructed) drug policy predicament. 

We then explored the implementation of the criminal justice turn by local partnerships in chapters four to six, drawing on data from three multi-method local case studies we conducted. We framed our analysis here by viewing the drug interventions delivered through the criminal justice process as a risk management system aligned to a security project. In chapter four, we focused on drug testing and assessment processes in the police station, understood as elements of a risk-filtering machine. In chapter five, we examined interventions at the court stage, conceptualised as parts of a system for the administration and management of risk. In chapter six, we explored the ways in which the role of criminal justice drug workers could be understood as brokers of risk knowledge within the system, rather than as therapeutic professionals conventionally defined.

In chapter seven, we addressed the thorny question of the impact of the criminal justice turn: has it worked? We argued that there is insufficient evidence currently to claim that it has been effective in reducing crime. We also suggested that there were some good reasons to believe that such an impact would in fact be unlikely anyway. We argued, too, that it is helpful to widen out what is meant by the idea of impact, to provide a more rounded and nuanced assessment. We turn now to consideration of the wider significance of our study.

If you like the sound of that, watch this space for publication details nearer the time!


About Toby Seddon

Professor of Social Science at UCL. Interested in new ideas and thinking about drug policy.
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1 Response to Tough Choices – drugs and criminal justice

  1. propensity says:

    Looks very interesting. Will look forward to reading!

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