9 July 2020

Thousands of high-risk convicted criminals, including those classed as violent and sexual offenders, were being released from prison in England into homelessness, increasing the likelihood of their reoffending, inspectors warned.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) said in a report that it was “particularly disturbed” to find that at least 3,713 people supervised by the National Probation Service, which is responsible for high-risk offenders, had left prison and become homeless from 2018 to 2019.

Ministry of Justice figures show 11,435 people were released from prison into homelessness in 2018-19, and 4,742 homeless people started community sentences in the same period.

The inspectors said this widespread homelessness was jeopardising the rehabilitation of offenders.

The chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell, said the case of the serial rapist Joseph McCann highlighted the importance of appropriate housing for high-risk offenders. The probation services had been unable to find McCann a bed in approved premises on two occasions and he had ended up in unsuitable housing that did not facilitate close monitoring and management.

Russell said: “Many individuals are homeless when they enter prison and even more are when they leave. Individuals need a safe place to call home, it gives them a solid foundation on which to build crime-free lives.

‘It is difficult for probation services to protect the public and support rehabilitation if individuals are not in stable accommodation. A stable address helps individuals to resettle back into the community, to find work, open a bank account, claim benefits and access local services.”

Russell has called for the Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to develop a national cross-government strategy addressing the housing needs of offenders. 

In all, 116 offenders released from prison were studied for the inspection report on accommodation and support for adult offenders in the community and on release from prison in England. Twelve months later 17% were found to be still homeless and a further 15% remained in unsettled accommodation.

For former prisoners released to settled accommodation, the number of those recalled or re-sentenced to custody was almost half that of those who did not have such accommodation upon release, the report said.

Many offender-specific schemes have closed or been merged with generic homelessness services where higher-risk individuals, such as those with convictions for sexual offences or arson, were less likely to be accepted, the inspectors said.

The report warns of “many substantial barriers to obtaining settled accommodation” for offenders.

HMIP said that most offenders did not have priority on the housing register, and some were excluded because of previous behaviour, rent arrears, being classed as “intentionally homeless”, or being without a local connection, while some social housing providers excluded “risky” service users.

“Overwhelmingly, we heard from service users that homelessness is tough, it is mentally and physically draining, often coexisting with similarly draining issues such as substance misuse and mental ill-health. We heard how some find it easier to be in prison than navigate housing services following release,” the report says.

The shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, said: “By failing to provide adequate housing, the government is setting up former offenders to fail.

“It is inevitable that some released from prison will fall back into crime if they have no option but to live on the streets. This creates more victims of crime, as well as greater expense to the tax payer as they end up back in prison.

“To break the cycle of re-offence for former prisoners, the government urgently needs to address the housing crisis, as well as re-investing in a proper, publicly-funded probation service.”

The inspectors visited probation services in Northamptonshire, Cleveland, London, and Essex, across both publicly-run and privately-run providers.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “No amount of good work in prison will achieve rehabilitation if the basics of support after release are ignored. If the government is serious about both rehabilitation and public protection it must take this opportunity to invest in a coherent plan. Spending billions on new prisons but peanuts on accommodation for the people they release is obviously futile.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Having a safe and secure place to live is a crucial factor in cutting reoffending, and the probation service works closely with councils to fulfil its duty to help prison leavers into stable accommodation.

“Since this review we have also introduced new teams dedicated to finding housing, are increasing spaces in approved premises, and our £6.4m pilot – part of the government’s rough sleeping strategy – has helped hundreds of offenders stay off the streets. We are also reviewing our referral process to help prevent homelessness.”

Source: The Guardian