It has been widely argued that securing adequate housing for ex-offenders reduces rates of recidivism. However, it is not uncommon for a person to be released from prison with nowhere to live and there have been criticisms over the statutory support available for prison leavers, and the lack of housing options available on release.
Being homeless on release from prison can lead to a downward spiral, re-offending and more prison time, incurring substantial social and economic costs for all concerned. The annual cost of re-offending to the economy in the UK has been estimated at between £9.5 and £13 billion.
Housing linked to re-offending
Various studies have highlighted the link between housing and recidivism and the importance of housing support for rehabilitation.
A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) back in 1996 highlighted that ex-prisoners are more likely to re-offend if they do not find satisfactory accommodation on release – two-thirds of ex-prisoners with no satisfactory accommodation re-offended within 12 months of release, while just a quarter of those with good accommodation did so.
The Social Exclusion Unit highlighted in a 2002 study that housing was one of the factors that had a “huge impact” on re-offending and that having stable accommodation reduces the risk of re-offending by a fifth.
A report published in 2012, found that three-fifths (60%) of prisoners believed that having a place to live was important in stopping them from re-offending in the future. It also found that 15% of people in prison were homeless prior to custody. More than three-quarters of prisoners (79%) who reported being homeless before custody were re-convicted in the first year after release, compared with less than half (47%) of those who did not report being homeless before custody.
The Howard League of Penal Reform has highlighted that a third of people leaving prison say they have nowhere to go. If those on remand are included, it is estimated that this could represent up to 50,000 people annually.
Further, the rough sleeping in London report (CHAIN) found that 32% of people seen rough sleeping in 2015/16 had experience of prison, indicating that a significant number hidden homeless are ex-offenders.
Such statistics suggest a clear link between housing and re-offending. It has even been suggested that ex-prisoners have intentionally re-offended to avoid homelessness.
‘Inadequate’ housing support
The JRF report found that the general level of housing support received by prisoners was ‘inadequate’.
Worryingly, 15 years after this report, Barnardo’s highlighted the need for improved support for young ex-offenders as it found children as young as 13 were being released from custody without a safe place to live. Barnardo’s argued that supported accommodation on release from custody could produce savings of more than £67,000 per individual over a three-year period.
A review of probation services carried out in 2014 also criticised the system, finding that:
“contact between offenders and offender supervisors or managers varied considerably and even where there was good contact, this had little impact on accommodation and ETE [employment, training and education] outcomes at the point of release, although contacts were more effective post-release. Sentence planning and oversight were weak and resettlement work in prisons was insufficiently informed.”
The Public Accounts Committee has more recently noted that “the offender housing problem is deteriorating”, despite probation reforms. And Crisis has also raised concern about the lack of financial or practical support to find accommodation for those leaving prison.
Current action and the Homelessness Reduction Act
Most prisons have a housing and resettlement service called ‘through the gate’, introduced by the government in 2015. However, early reports on these services have not been hopeful, described as “having a negligible impact on reducing prisoner re-offending rates, two years after its introduction.”
Local authorities also have a statutory duty to assist homeless and vulnerable ex-offenders in some circumstances, and if not entitled to social housing, they must provide advice to ex-offenders at risk of homelessness. This duty has been strengthened by the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 in England, which has just come into force. The Act puts an obligation on prison or probation services to notify a local authority if they believe a person to be at risk of homelessness.
Crisis has described the Act as “the most significant change to the homelessness legislation in 40 years”.
In Scotland, the Scottish Prison Service and partners launched the Sustainable Housing on Release for Everyone (SHORE) standards in December 2017. These standards represent a good example of preventative measures, which aim ‘to ensure that the housing needs of individuals in prison are handled at an early stage, in a consistent way across Scotland, regardless of where they come from, their housing status and how long they have been in prison or young offenders’ institution’.
Will it make a difference?
It is too early to tell whether these actions will have the desired impact but here’s hoping they will be more effective than previous reforms. It has been suggested that such provisions will go some way to help create the culture change needed but that it is not enough.
The evidence points to the need for greater collaboration and partnership working across all sectors.
With the shortage in housing, austerity, and increasing numbers of homeless people among the whole population, it will certainly be no mean feat.
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