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OAS Drug Commission Publishes Report on Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug-Related Offenses

  May 21, 2015

The Executive Secretariat of the Commission for the Control of Drug Abuse (CICAD) of the Organization of American States (OAS) today released the technical report on "Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug -Related Offenses," which was presented to members states in its recent 57th regular session.

The report argues that the search for alternatives to incarceration can contribute to achieving at least five core objectives in the hemisphere: “to more effectively address public health problems associated with illicit drug use and provide a more humane and effective response to drug‐related crimes;
to reduce the negative impacts of incarceration, while helping to reduce prison overcrowding and the human rights violations stemming from it; to make the punishment fit the crime, maintaining the idea of proportionality and employing criminal punishment as the last resort for minor offenders; to ensure public safety and citizen security by prioritizing use of public resources in the fight against organized crime; and to ensure that the above objectives are achieved with the minimum expense necessary to maximize the desired results.”

With these "fundamental goals", the report, intended as a reference for the member countries, proposes a list of alternatives that have been adopted in recent years in different countries, and that "each member state may tailor to its own context, given that each state is facing different issues on the ground." The initiatives "have certain common features," says the report, which however added that "there is no across-the-board formula that works everywhere” and the countries in the region can " each member state can, of course accept, reject or modify each strategy as it sees fit”.

The OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, said that the proposals respond to the findings of the OAS Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas, which was drafted under his supervision in compliance with a mandate from the Heads of State at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Colombia in April 2012. "The report concluded that there is a problem of prison overcrowding in nearly all the countries of the hemisphere due to drug enforcement taking place mainly through criminal sanctions," he said. In this respect, he said "the application of severe laws for drug offenses has generated negative consequences such as overloaded courts and prisons, and the suffering of thousands of people imprisoned for small drug offenses."

Among the specific strategies proposed in the report presented today are: the decriminalization or depenalization; diversion from the judicial system; non-custodial sanctions; proportionality; and monitoring and evaluation.

Regarding decriminalization or legalization, the document states they are instruments used, primarily "as an alternative for non-problematic drug users." The advantage of this alternative is that the justice system frees up resources that can be used for other purposes.
With regard to the diversion from the justice system, it is argued that a drug-related offender may be referred to "public health and social assistance systems, affording them opportunities to rejoin and become a productive of their community."

Regarding non-custodial measures, the report states that this strategy "recognizes the need for conviction and punishment in certain cases, but it minimizes the number of offenders serving time in prison for minor drug-related offenses, thus contributing to the relief of overcrowding, and in turn the potential human rights violations that are often a result of the overcrowding."

On proportionality, the report notes that this legal principle states that the punishment for a particular offense should reflect the degree of damage to society. "This principle necessitates the creation of categories of offenses, of substances and of offenders, and the assignment of a range of sentencing options applicable to each category," adds the document.

The report also proposes to the monitoring and evaluation of all alternatives to incarceration implemented, arguing that it is important that initiatives incorporate "all the elements required to ensure proper implementation, such as institutional backing, adequate funding, training, assessment of implementation, and proper oversight.” "There is still a debate as to the manner in which to measure the impacts of the alternative measures for drug‐related offenses mentioned in this report. There is, however, agreement that the establishment of clear indicators to measure the results is essential to demonstrate the success or failure of any particular alternative or to identify aspects that could be improved," the document states.

The report was drafted by the CICAD and the Government of Colombia, which chaired the Working Group for alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses.

The document recalls that the historical starting point of the region on the issue of drugs dates back to the three United Nations Conventions on international drug control - approved in 1961, 1971 and 1988, in pursuit of which the OAS member states established a system of penalties related to the possession, sale and trafficking of drugs. The growth of the problem and, in part, the demands of the public, resulted in convictions of ever longer prison sentences, not always proportionate to the crime and its threat to human health or public safety. "Many countries in the hemisphere are now facing major prison overcrowding problems, leading to associated state expenditure and increased risks of human rights violations. the report added.

The shift in policy in the region and the beginning of the joint formulation of proposals of alternatives to imprisonment began, relates the report, with the approval of the member states of the OAS - through CICAD - of the 2010 Hemispheric Drug Strategy and its 2011-2015 Plan of Action agreeing to "explore the means of offering treatment, rehabilitation, and recovery support services to drug‐dependent offenders as an alternative to imprisonment, and in some cases, criminal prosecution."

In addition, the OAS produced the report entitled "The Drug Problem in the Americas." The report opened the debate at the highest political level in the hemisphere on the need to change the approach in treating the problem. Following the report, the OAS General Assembly in 2013 adopted the Declaration of Antigua Guatemala, "For a Comprehensive Policy Against the World Drug Problem in the Americas", in which the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the OAS encouraged member states, “in accordance with their domestic law, to continue strengthening measures and policies, including a gender perspective, as appropriate, to reduce overcrowding in prisons, while promoting greater access to justice for all." Later in the XLVI OAS Special General Assembly, held in Guatemala in September 2014, this need was re-emphasized.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-185/15