Government expands offender accommodation

For many years there has been growing frustration at the lack of stable and secure housing for people released from prison and those on probation

This week provided us with more evidence that ministers and civil servants are back from holiday and no longer focused exclusively on combatting coronavirus. Following the Ministry of Justice’s announcement on Sunday that it was controversially extending the custody time limit for how long individuals can be remanded before coming to trial, Tuesday saw the Department announce that it intended to start addressing long-standing concerns about the lack of offender accommodation by expanding the number of probation hostel places.

For many years there has been growing frustration at the lack of stable and secure housing both for people released from prison and those on probation. It is clear that hardly anyone is likely to be able to resolve their problems and move away from a life of crime if they don’t have a decent roof over their head. A recent (July 2020) report by the probation inspectorate makes clear just how dire the current situation is. Ministry of Justice figures show 11,435 people were released from prison into homelessness in 2018-2019, and 4,742 homeless people started community sentences in the same period.

Inspectors were “particularly disturbed” to find a high rate of homelessness among cases supervised by the National Probation Service (NPS), which manages the highest-risk offenders. Over 3,700 individuals managed by the NPS, many of them convicted of sexual or violent offences, left prison homeless in 2018-2019.

The Inspectorate also 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.

It is those high risk offenders at whom the announcement is targeted. Approved premises (known as APs within the sector and probation hostels to the public at large) provide temporary accommodation (typically 6 weeks to 6 months) for those convicted of serious crimes on their release from prison. APs are staffed 24 hours a day by trained probation staff and offenders living there are subjected to close monitoring and support. They are require to comply with night-time curfews and regular drug and alcohol testing.

Establishing a new probation hostel is a time-consuming process since planning permission is normally required and it is unusual for local residents not to contest the development of a facility designed to house people with extensive criminal records. For this reason, the MoJ has said that it will expand provision by extending and reconfiguring existing hostels with the aim of creating 200 new bedrooms which the Department estimates will house a total of 1700 additional people released from prison every year.

The MoJ has also committed itself to spend a further £10 million on refurbishments and security, including upgraded CCTV systems and personal alarms for staff. As is now the case with any government announcements relating to infrastructure, the official press release highlights the fact that this investment will create work for local tradespeople. The MoJ also intends to use probation hostel residents and other offenders to carry out some of the renovation work through a “Handyman Scheme” which is designed to help people learn new skills and boost their employment opportunities.

This is a relatively modest but clearly much-needed expansion in housing resources for high risk offenders. However, it is clear that there remain very high levels of need for the much greater number of lower and medium risk offenders in almost every part of the country. People living in approved premises are subject to very high levels of both support and supervision and many struggle to accept a new set of very restrictive rules at exactly the point in time when they thought they were regaining their freedom on release from prison. It is known that a substantial proportion of the ever growing number of people recalled to prison on licence are individuals who failed to comply with their hostel curfew restrictions.

It is therefore entirely possible that not only will additional probation hostel places give some people leaving prison a better chance at resettlement but will also result in several of them being recalled sooner than might otherwise be the case.