Why Indonesia should stop sending drug users to prison

In Indonesia, sending drug users to prison only creates more problems, from overcrowding to bigger exposures to drug abuse. www.shutterstock.com

Why Indonesia should stop sending drug users to prison

Indonesia is locking up more inmates than it can handle. Prison overcrowding has become one of the government’s top priorities under its legal reform policy. It has led to various problems, including riots and bribery.

As of June 2018, the government had detained almost 250,000 inmates in prisons across the country. The prisons’ total capacity can accommodate only half of that figure.

The overcrowding problem is mostly due to Indonesia’s justice system, which can easily send criminals to prison even for minor cases. Under the system, drug users are sent to prisons instead of rehab centres. They are even categorised as serious criminal offenders together with graft convicts and convicted terrorists. Recent data show that drug users account for a third of those jailed for serious crimes.

Given the huge numbers in prison, the government needs to stop sending drug users to prison and revisit its punitive approach to them.

Indonesia’s drugs policy

As a starting point, we must understand that drug convicts are not necessarily drug dealers. When someone is a drug convict, he or she can be a drug user, or a drug dealer, or both in some cases.

However, Indonesian law does not acknowledge this differentiation and tends to treat all drug convicts as serious criminal offenders. Under the law, drug abuse is considered a serious crime and the offenders will get a severe punishment. This potentially includes the death penalty.

Article 127 of the Law on Drugs states that a judge can offer rehabilitation programs for drug users after trials. However, the regulation is not effectively implemented yet. Most legal officers believe that sending drug users to prisons is the common practice. Recent undisclosed research from the Indonesia Judicial Monitoring Society shows that of 21 cases involving drug users in Jakarta District Court in 2015, only six were sent to a rehab centre.

Inconsistencies in Indonesian law present another challenge. Even though there is an article that offers rehab, another article encourages jail time.

Article 112 states that a person who owns, keeps, controls and serves narcotics should receive a jail sentence. This defines drug users as serious criminals, as logically the person who uses drugs also owns and keeps the drugs. Recent research from the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR) shows that legal officers tend to rely more on article 112 than article 127 in handling drug cases, as the former is easier to prove than the latter.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s harsh approach in dealing with drug cases has only worsened the problem.

In another effort, Indonesia introduced a forced rehabilitation program for drug users in 2015. It has promoted a more lenient approach to addressing drug use. However, in practice, the state often forcibly detains suspected drug users.

Jail time is not effective for drug users

Sending drug users to jail only make things worse for them due to rampant corrupt practices inside prisons. Inmates can get everything they want for a price, including drugs.

Yale University researcher Gabriel J. Culbert revealed the rampant use of drugs in Jakarta’s prison. Based on his research in 2014, he found that 56% of inmates used drugs in prison. The respondents also claimed they still can get illegal drugs in prison. This means jail sentences are not effective in reducing drug use.

Inside jail, drug users are also exposed to wider drug communities. According to the National Anti-Narcotics Agency, 50% of drug trafficking is controlled from inside prisons.

The bad impact

Sending drug users to prisons is not only ineffective but also creates many problems.

If the government decides to send every drug user to prison, this will only hurt the state’s budget as more inmates mean more funding is required.

The state’s budget for prison was set at Rp 1.2 trillion (US$83 million) in 2017, almost double the allocation in 2012.

If the government continues to lock up drug users in jail while the budget is limited, it will lead to two bad consequences. The first is the poor quality of the prison service. The second is rampant corruption involving both guards and prisoners. Underpaid guards will take bribes from prisoners whose needs are not being met.

Another problem arising from putting drug users in jail is overcrowding. Having more inmates than each prison can handle leaves them prone to riots and corruption.

Corruption is rampant in overcrowded prisons as the government’s limited budget means it fails to provide services that meet the basic needs of inmates.

Lessons from other countries

Instead of sending drug users to prison, Indonesia should learn from how other countries handle drug cases.

The Netherlands has introduced a policy that doesn’t criminalise the use of marijuana. This policy allows the distribution of small amounts of cannabis in Dutch “coffee shops”. These coffee shops successfully avoid exposure to hard drug markets. Research shows that even though a quarter of Dutch people have consumed marijuana, the Netherlands has the lowest number of narcotics addicts in Europe.

Portugal also provides an interesting lesson. In 2000, Portugal introduced a policy that does not criminalise drug use, which broke a global paradigm in handling drugs problems. Instead of a repressive approach, Portugal has chosen a new humane approach that focuses more on minimising harm from drug use.

In doing so, Portugal has stopped criminalising, marginalising and stigmatising drug users. Following the recommendation of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Portugal has offered health and medical treatments to drug users who need them. Five years after decriminalising drug use, Portugal had decreased its overdose cases from 400 to 290 a year.

Knowing that Indonesia’s punitive approach to drug users is doing more harm than good, it is probably a good time for the government to evaluate its legal policy on drug issues. It is important to keep in mind that the government should emphasise drug policy to fight against drug addiction and illegal distribution and not drug users.