The law enforcement costs of de facto 'criminalising' drug possession: the Italian experience
Introduction: In 2006, the “Fini-Giovanardi” law was approved de facto criminalizing the consumption of cannabis in Italy. It introduced a binary discrimination between users and dealers only based on the quantity possessed when arrested, and leaving little discretional space for judgement decision. Even minor users could no longer avoid the administrative sanction, regardless on their participation in therapeutic intervention. In 2014, the Italian Constitutional Court declared the law unconstitutional and it was abolished it. In this paper, we evaluate the impact of drug-use criminalization on law enforcement costs.
Methods: We draw on semi-annual data on drug crimes reported by police at a provincial level, complemented by prison admission for drug offences during a period from 1990 through 2017, obtained from the Italian Interior and Justice Ministers. We test for a discontinuous increase in prison admission and drug offences corresponding with the entry of the law decree. We then investigate the effect of the legislation abolishment on these indicators.
We derive the drug-attributable fraction for criminal justice expenditures in terms of police costs for detection, court costs associated with the legal process and prison costs of imprisoned individuals, drawing on data collected by the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice. We contextualize the evolution of drug-related crime and law enforcement figures in Italy with other EU countries that did not experience a reform in their drug law during the same period.
Results: Criminalizing the possession of small quantity of drugs has resulted in a substantial increase in administrative sanctions, with the majority due to the illegal detention of cannabis. In parallel, the number of judicial reports that have been set aside has more than halved. There is substantial inter-province differences in sentencing practices, contributing to the variation of prison sentences when punishing drug offenders.
The likelihood of going imprisonment upon arrest for drug offenses increased substantially after the reform. Drug-related admissions skyrocketed, especially for foreign prisoners, who experienced a 20 percent increase. Its repeal was followed with an average drop of 46 percent in prison admission for drug law offences, which is particularly substantial, given that more than one-third of the admissions were related to drug law violation.
At the European level, a significant effect of the reform was found in the trend of most drug-related figures within the Italian judicial system.
Conclusions: This is the first attempt to estimate the increased law enforcement costs derived by increasing the punishment for drug trade and possession. These costs are important as they dominate the public expenditures to reduce drug problems. Although it is impossible to break down the specific effect of the various policy details introduced by the legislation, we can affirm that such a reform has produced substantial additional costs for the Italianj ustice system (exact figures TBA) while being ineffective in curbing illegal drug consumption.
The article concludes by identifying other costs associated with this repressive law, such as the increase in poly-drug use and the decrease in the adoption of alternative treatments. We propose different indicators and possible evaluations that could be conducted to identify these additional social costs.