Press Release-Sentencing Council Guideline on Drug Offences

Sentencing Council Guidelines for Drug Offences see reduced sentences for ‘drug mules’ but fail to address disproportionate sentencing

Today the Sentencing Council launches new guidelines for Judges to direct them in the sentencing of drug offences. Release, IDPC and TNI provided expert guidance and detailed submissions to the Council as part of the consultation process which took place in June 2011. We are pleased to see that a number of our recommendations have formed part of the final guidelines:

• ‘Drug mules’ will see the starting point for sentencing reduced from 10 years to 6 years in most cases. This recognises the vulnerable nature and exploitation of those driven to traffic drugs over international borders by swallowing or concealing illicit substances. While a step in the right direction, we still consider the given range of 5-7 years to be a disproportionate punishment for this type of offence.
• Possession offences are to be sentenced based only on the Class of drug, rather than the initial proposal that both the quantity and class involved should determine the sentence. We welcome the Council’s decision in this area as quantity amounts do not act as a helpful or realistic indicator of harm and fail to recognise the complexity of drug use .
• The initial proposals would also have seen a street dealer automatically classed as someone leading a drugs operation. This is not reflective of the drugs market and we were glad to see our views considered. Many people who fall within this category are driven to deal to supplement their own addiction and their motivation relates to survival rather than profit.
• Greater recognition has been given to key factors in deciding on the seriousness of the offence, such as the degree of coercion an offender was subject to, and the extent of profit they were seeking.

Ann Fordham, Executive Director of IDPC – the organisation responsible for setting up an international expert seminar on the proportionality of sentencing with TNI and the Council - stated “the Sentencing Council should be applauded in relation to the technical development of the definitive guidelines; this is a good example of how consultation processes should be carried out. It is clear from the guidelines that expert NGO’s submissions were properly considered and influenced the final outcome.”

However, the guidelines do not go far enough in addressing the issue of proportionality in sentencing. The range of sentences available for non-violent drug offences are disproportionately harsher when compared to serious violent offences. Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, emphasised that ‘‘the starting point for an importation offence for a medium amount of Class A drugs is 11 years under these new guidelines, yet the offence of rape carries a starting point of 5 years and grievous bodily harm 3 years. It is outrageous that a rapist will receive a significantly shorter sentence than someone who is a mid-level drug dealer.”

The whole system of sentencing for drug offences needs significant reform as the reality is that the UK gives longer sentences for supply than most other countries. Yet this does not have a deterrent effect and puts pressure on an already overcrowded prison system. It is time that the Government reforms sentencing in this area, to end the injustice of disproportionate sentencing, and stops wasting limited resources on a flawed system.


Notes to editors:
1. Release is the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law providing expert advice to the public (
2. The International Drug Policy Consortium (‘IDPC’) is a global network of 82 NGOs and professional networks that specialise in issues related to the production and use of controlled drugs (
3. The Transnational Institute (TNI) carries out cutting-edge analysis on critical global issues, builds alliances with grassroots social movements, develops proposals for a more sustainable and just world (
4. . The new guideline can be found on the Sentencing Council website:
Press Enquiries: Niamh Eastwood – 07900 002632/; Rupert George – 07767 768959/; Kirstie Douse – 07793 221039/