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OAS Member States Highlight the Importance of Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug Related Offenders

  March 13, 2015

The Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States (OAS), Paul Simons, this week moderated a debate held in Vienna, Austria, in the framework of the meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) of the United Nations, in which several member states of the OAS emphasized the importance of alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenses.

During the meeting of high-level officials from Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States, as well as several OAS observer countries, participants discussed the development and implementation of alternatives to incarceration for drug-related offenders. Michael Botticelli, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) of the United States; Roberto Campa, Undersecretary of Prevention and Citizen Participation in the Ministry of the Interior of Mexico; Ivor Archie, Chief Justice of Trinidad and Tobago; and Art Wyatt, from the United States Department of Justice, invited United Nations member states to participate in the debate promoted by the OAS through CICAD.

The Executive Secretary of CICAD, Ambassador Simons, said “While making sure that we do not cross the line in offering impunity, many countries in the hemisphere are moving ahead with offering feasible alternatives in different judicial-penal stages to small scale, non-violent drug related offenders.” “It is a challenge to convince public opinion, especially in countries with high crime rates, of the importance of developing these alternatives in which police, the justice system and the health sector, for instance, work together to find creative solutions,” he added.

Miguel Samper, Vice Minister for Crime Policy and Restorative Justice of Colombia, one of the countries leading this effort at the regional level, said “we need to ensure that our penal systems are used as the last resource.”

In that context, the ONDCP Director, Michael Botticelli, said that “locking people up for minor drug offenses, especially individuals with untreated substance use disorders, does not work.” He added that “in promoting reform we are not suggesting that illegal behavior be ignored, or that drug use and sales are not serious matters. The point is that there are better alternatives than prison for people with low-level drug offenses.”

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Trinidad and Tobago, Ivor Archie, said that in his country, “the search for alternatives to incarceration is driven by a growing understanding of drug dependency or addiction as a public health issue and a critical examination of the social and economic environment.” Chief Justice Archie noted that this had been enhanced by the fact that “The Trinidad and Tobago Court of Appeal has recently declared mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses to be arbitrary and unconstitutional, thereby giving judges greater flexibility in designing sanctions that are appropriate for the particular circumstances.”

For his part the Undersecretary of Prevention and Citizen Participation in the Ministry of the Interior of Mexico, Roberto Campa, highlighted that “Prioritization of the individual's punishment has caused serious social welfare costs; therefore, a paradigm shift is necessary today in the justice administration and law enforcement; a change that emphasizes the implementation of measures and penalties according to the individual and the type of misbehavior.”

In the last few years, many of the countries in the Americas have experienced a significant increase in the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses. The length of sentences for these offenses have an important relationship to prison overcrowding – a problem experienced by many countries in the region. The importance of judicial and sentencing reform and alternatives to incarceration has been discussed by a growing number of countries in and outside of the Americas.

Several OAS countries are working within the framework of their regional drug commission CICAD to present a menu of alternatives to incarceration for the U.N. special General Assembly on drugs in 2016.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-085/15