Last week, governments gathered in Vienna for the 26th Session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ). At the occasion of the Session, IDPC partnered with Penal Reform International (PRI) and the government of Costa Rica to organise a side event that aimed to link the UNGASS outcomes with the work of the CCPCJ.

Olivia Rope, PRI’s Programme Officer, opened the discussions with one compelling statistic – currently, one in five prisoners worldwide are incarcerated for a drug offence. 83% of them are in for drug possession, and the greater part of those incarcerated for drug trafficking are only involved at the lowest levels of the illicit drug chain. In a nutshell, this means that instead of targeting the most ruthless and violent individuals involved in organised crime activities, our drug control strategies have focused on the small fish, those that are often engaged in illicit drug activities because of lack of opportunities, poverty, stigma and marginalisation. Unsurprisingly, this zero-tolerance strategy has resulted in massive prison overcrowding.

Disappointingly, the UNGASS Outcome Document failed to recognise this global prison crisis. It nonetheless includes several recommendations on criminal justice reform. The CCPCJ has a significant role to play in ensuring that best practice and criminal justice standards are fully incorporated in drug control approaches – and the event was an opportunity to highlight best practice examples of countries having moved towards more proportionate sentencing and alternatives to incarceration for drug offences.

Source: Justice Focus (Twitter)

One of the key aspects of criminal justice reform as it relates to drug control is addressing the specific needs of women. Maria del Pilar Saborío de Rocafort, Costa Rican Ambassador in Vienna, offered Costa Rica’s experience in this regard. ‘The worst kind of blindness is the refusal to see’, the Ambassador started, reflecting on the fact that we cannot continue with the same punitive approach if we know it is not working. And Costa Rica has been innovative here. In 2013, the country reviewed its drug law to reduce the prison sentence of vulnerable women condemned for trafficking drugs in prisons. At the time, 75% of the female prison population were incarcerated for a drug offence. Most of those imprisoned for smuggling in drugs (generally to a partner or family member) in penitentiary facilities were sharing a similar background – poverty, sole carer of several children and/or elderly relatives, limited formal education and lack of job opportunities. Their incarceration was not only affecting them, but also their children and sometimes entire families. In recognition of their situation of dire vulnerability, the new law reduced penalties from 8-20 years to 3-8 years, and offered alternatives to incarceration with the help of a comprehensive social support network to address the underlying causes of their involvement in the drug trade. When the law was enacted, 150 women were immediately released from prison – and only 1% reoffended. Costa Rica also established a Restorative Justice Programme, whereby first-time offenders who commit a minor crime (generally theft) because of drug dependency are offered alternatives to incarceration. The Costa Rican example is incredibly important in a region where the high prison rates for women are mainly driven by repressive drug laws. It is also a more humane strategy that aims to support those in need, instead of pushing them further into cycles of poverty, marginalisation and crime.

Discussions then moved on to Georgia’s recent Constitutional Court decision in favour of cannabis decriminalisation. Guro Imnadze, from the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre, was one of the lawyers involved in the case. He explained that between 2006 and 2012 the Georgian government had adopted a zero-tolerance approach towards drugs, with disproportionate penalties applied for all drug offenders, going as high as life imprisonment. As in every other region of the world, this repressive approach led to a major prison crisis, with 30% of prisoners incarcerated for low-level drug offences. In late 2015, the Constitutional Court considered the case of Beka Tsikaririshvili v. Parliament of Georgia, involving a man who had been caught with small amounts of cannabis for personal use. The Court abolished imprisonment for simple cannabis possession. But the fight for drug policy reform is only beginning. Advocates are now turning to cases involving people caught for using other drugs – and who are therefore still criminalised under Georgian drug legislation. However, this ruling did open space for activism and civil society involvement in drug policy debates. A platform was created by drug experts and civil rights advocates calling for systematic reform, including the drafting of a proposal for legal amendments to decriminalise all drugs, heavily relying on the Portuguese decriminalisation model.

I then took the floor on behalf of IDPC to propose a series of recommendations on how the CCPCJ could better engage in the post-UNGASS process. The UNGASS Outcome Document is clearly relevant for the Commission, in particular on proportionality of sentencing, alternatives to incarceration or punishment, better access to healthcare in prisons (in line with the Bangkok and Mandela Rules), as well as improving access to due process and ending arbitrary detention or ill-treatment in criminal justice proceedings. In practice, many countries have already adopted – or are currently considering – these policies, such as Costa Rica and Georgia, but also countries as diverse as the UK, Thailand, Myanmar and others.

If nothing else, the UNGASS process has demonstrated the importance of ensuring better coordination within and across the UN system. The Sustainable Development Goals are also a unique mechanism requiring a synergy of efforts to achieve the complex targets set out for 2030. And of course, member states are now gearing up for the next big moment in global drug control, set to take place in 2019, when they will decide on their global drug strategy for the next decade. Considering the critical role of the CCPCJ in dealing with criminal justice matters, it is our hope that the CCPCJ can better engage in these processes by promoting evidence-based and humane criminal justice approaches and critical guidance such as the Tokyo Rules, the Bangkok Rules and the Mandela Rules. 

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