A drug possession sentencing experiment

Fintan SmithPolitical Research Executive
December 21, 2023, 3:39 PM GMT+0

A YouGov survey experiment examines how sentencing attitudes for drug possession are affected by factors like criminal background, intent to distribute and type of drug

Nearly one in five prisoners in England and Wales (17%), and one in eleven in Scotland (9%), are there because of a drug related offence. Both the Conservative and Labour party have publicly said they are in favour of tougher policing of drug offences.

Using a randomised trials procedure, a YouGov experiment examines how sentencing attitudes to drug possession change based on differing elements about the crime.

We put a hypothetical scenario to the public whereby the police had stopped someone and found them to be in possession of an illegal drug. Respondents were then given some information about which drug they were in possession of, what they planned to do with the drug and any previous criminal history. The public then indicated what punishment, if any, they felt was fair for that individual.

Collating the results across all scenarios, 40% of the time respondents said that the individual who had been stopped deserved a prison sentence. Around half of the time (50%) Britons instead favour an alternative punishment, including community service (16%), a caution (11%), a small fine (8%) or a large fine (15%). In 10% of scenarios generated, people don’t believe that the should be punished at all.

The randomised trials design we used allows us to dig down into how each element we changed about the scenario – the drug found, the intention behind having the drug, and any previous criminal background – tended to affect how harsh or lenient a punishment people believe the individual stopped deserves.

How does the type of drug affect what sentence people think someone should get?

When it comes to the drug the person is stopped with, being in possession of heroin leads to the largest increase in how often a prison sentence is deemed appropriate (10 points higher than the rate across all scenarios), with possession of cocaine and ketamine leading to an increase of two points. If stopped with MDMA (more commonly known as ecstasy) and cannabis, however, Britons are less likely to believe a prison sentence is appropriate, with the proportion of times a prison sentence is chosen falling by two and ten points respectively.

How does the possessor’s intent affect what sentence people think they should get?

Whether the individual intends to sell the drug they are found in possession of has the largest impact on how likely Britons are to believe a prison sentence is appropriate across all the features of the scenario we changed.

In cases where the drugs were to be sold, the rate at which people say that the individual should serve time in prison increases by 23 points against the overall rate. By contrast, when the intention is for personal use and use by friends the number who believe that prison is appropriate drops by nine points. In the case that possession is intended for personal use only, it drops even further against the total rate, by 14 points.

How does the possessor’s criminal record affect what sentence people think they should get?

The final element we changed across scenarios was the previous offence history of the person found in possession of illegal drugs. Of the different criminal backgrounds we included, Britons are most likely to suggest prison is an appropriate punishment for those who have committed multiple drug offences in the past, which scores 12 points higher than the overall rate.

This is notably higher than the result for an individual with a violent offence on their criminal record, but no drug-related offences. The proportion saying that such an individual should see the inside of a jail cell rose only two points.

For those who have never previously committed a drug offence, the proportion who believe prison is the right answer instead decreases by 11 points from the total rate across all conditions, whilst for those with one drug offence the figure does not change.

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See the full results here

Photo: Getty