How can people be rehabilitated if they are homeless?

Work with Offenders looks as a damning new report from the probation inspectorate

Everyone who works in the criminal justice system knows that there is a long-standing problem with offender homelessness and that things have been getting worse over recent years. Nevertheless, many people will have been surprised by the scale of the problem revealed by yesterday’s thematic report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation into the accommodation and support needs of adult offenders – both those serving community sentences and those released from prison. The graphic from the report reproduced below contains some truly shocking numbers:

© Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation

The probation service has been in disarray over recent years following the fragmentation introduced by the governments Transforming Rehabilitation programme which split the service into the National Probation Service (NPS) which prepares court reports and supervises high risk offenders and 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) supervise medium and low risk offenders. Much of the criticism has been levelled at the CRCs and, finally, at the end of last month, the Ministry of Justice decided to abandon the split system and return all offender management interventions to the public service.

What is troubling about this new report is that inspectors were “particularly disturbed” to find high rate of homelessness among cases supervised by the NPS. Indeed, over 3700 individual supervised by the NPS, many of them convicted of sexual or violent offences, left prison homeless in 2018/19.

It is no surprise that people who are homeless find it very difficult to turn their lives around and escape from a life of crime. Individuals need a safe place to call home to give 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.

The inspectors’ report provides detailed evidence that this is the case. The Inspectorate followed the fortunes of 116 people in the year after they were released from prison:

  • 16 per cent were still homeless after 12 months and 15 per cent were in unsettled housing
  • 63 per cent of those released into unsettled accommodation were recalled or resentenced to custody within a year, compared to 35 per cent who had settled accommodation
  • 65 per cent of those released into unsettled accommodation had reoffended, compared to 44 per cent who had settled accommodation.

The human cost of the lack of accommodation is also explored in the report by way of interviews with 75 offenders. These individuals made it clear that even when they were found some form of accommodation by the probation service, it was often of very poor quality with many individuals feeling unsafe. In one example, a woman was released from prison back to her abusive partner’s home, despite expressing worries about her own safety. While some people were sleeping rough, others were sofa surfing or even living in cars.

Frustratingly, despite these serious and persistent problems, the inspectors did find a number of examples of good practice different parts of the country. In London a large team of specialist advice workers were able to help people access the private rented sector with many of the individuals who were found homes also receiving additional support. A three-person team in all exceeded in housing more than 200 service users in the first two years of a new project.

Unfortunately though, these examples of good practice were the exception rather than the rule.

You know there is something wrong with our system of rehabilitation when the Chief Probation Inspector Justin Russell sums up the report by saying: “Many individuals are homeless when they enter prison and even more are when they leave.”