Housing for people in contact with the criminal justice system
A hollow promise or a hope for desistance? - Burcu Borysik, Revolving Doors Agency
Having a safe, secure and good quality home is a basic human right. The significance of housing for human dignity, physical and mental wellbeing and overall quality of life only begin to reveal some of its human right implications. But for tens of thousands of people leaving prison each year, the right to housing remains a hollow promise.
For nearly 30 years now, Revolving Doors Agency has been advocating policies to ‘end the revolving door’. There is no more telling example of the ‘revolving door’ than people cycling from unsafe and unsecure accommodation to prison and back onto the streets. Each cycle exposes people to further violence and trauma, exacerbates mental ill-health and problematic substance use, and makes further criminal justice contact more likely.
There is clear and persuasive evidence that shows homelessness and insecure tenure is a reliable predictor of higher rates of non-violent and violent offending1 even controlling histories of previous cautions and convictions.2 The recent HMI Probation3 added to this evidence, showing that people who are released without a settled accommodation are almost twice as likely to be recalled or resentenced to custody. If we are serious
about reducing crime and increasing public confidence in the criminal justice system, we must follow the evidence. Giving people a safe place to live reduces crime, reduces victims and keeps communities safe.
"There is clear and persuasive evidence that shows homelessness and insecure tenure is a reliable predictor of higher rates of non-violent and violent offending."
Yet, homelessness remains prevalent across the criminal justice system. The recent HMI Probation4 review on accommodation shows that a quarter of people released from prison into homelessness. Rates are likely to be higher, as the Ministry of Justice does not know where one in ten people go upon release from prison. Homelessness is a particularly acute problem among people serving short prison sentences under six months. Data Revolving Doors Agency obtained under the Freedom of Information legislation revealed that the rates of rough sleeping among people who have served sentences of less than six months has increased by 25-fold between October 2016 and June 2018. Considering nearly half of all people sentenced to custody each year serve a short prison sentence under six months, addressing homelessness upon prison release just among people serving short prison sentences presents a huge challenge.
"The rates of rough sleeping among people who have served sentences of less than six months has increased by 25-fold between October 2016 and June 2018."
It is important to remember that most people serve a short prison sentence under six months for relatively minor and non-violent offences, such as theft and minor drug offences. We know these are crimes of despair, driven by multiple unaddressed problems such as poverty, addiction, and homelessness. All the research shows, and the Ministry of Justice acknowledges, that short sentence prisoners have significantly higher levels of needs compared to the wider population in the criminal justice system. For instance, data we obtained5 under Freedom of Information legislation shows that nearly two thirds of people sent to custody for less than six months report a drug or alcohol problem on arrival at prison. HMI Prisons found the overall rate for all sentence lengths was a quarter.6
It is not at all surprising that these short prison sentences command some of the highest reoffending rates in the system. Indeed, our recent analysis7 showed that 82% of people convicted of theft who are sentenced to less than six months in prison are convicted again within a year of release. Ministry of Justice research is extremely clear: short prison sentences have higher rates of proven re-offending than community orders when matched ‘like for like’ offenders. This is because short prison sentences not only fail to provide any meaningful rehabilitation, but also disrupts housing and treatment programmes.
"Short prison sentences have higher rates of proven re-offending than community orders when matched ‘like for like’ offenders."
We can prevent this unnecessary churn of people from prison onto the streets by limiting the use of shortsighted custodial options where possible and safe to do so. For the last two years, we have been calling on the government to introduce a presumption against short sentences, requiring the court to only impose such a sentence if no other appropriate disposal is available and to record publicly the reason for a custodial sentence.
"We can prevent this unnecessary churn of people from prison onto the streets by limiting the use of short-sighted custodial options where possible and safe to do so."
And for those people who end up going to prison, despite a presumption, need better support. Our work with Public Health England and Home Office showed that people in the criminal justice system suffer multiple health issues, including asthma, epilepsy, diabetes, and pulmonary embolism, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, as well as blood borne viruses. Homelessness and poor-quality housing put people at higher risk of disease and increases demand on health and care services. Not knowing where they will sleep tonight makes it nearly impossible for people to access
any support: many people leave prison with the wrong medication or none at all, not being registered with a GP in the community, leaving without an official assessment of their social care needs.
This failure is costing lives: the risk of suicide8 is highest in the first 28 days following release, with men leaving prison 10 times and women leaving prison 40 times more likely to commit suicide compared to the general population. INQUEST’s recent analysis9 shows that 1,093 people under community supervision died last year – the highest rate on record. A third of these deaths were self-inflicted, and a further third from natural causes. Could some of these deaths be prevented through the right housing and support?
Finally, it is important to emphasise the need for good quality and secure accommodation. A recent peer-led review10 we carried out showed that serious and repeat victimisation is common, and experiences of physical and sexual assault are alarmingly high among people in supported accommodation settings. Men appear more at risk from physical assault and theft and women more at risk of sexual victimisation (however, crime types were not gender-exclusive). We found that the dynamic between crime and homelessness is often complex. The predominant discourses frame criminals and victims as polar opposites, enforcing the view that the crime takes place between ‘a perfect criminal’ typified by
opportunistic and violent behaviour and ‘a perfect victim’ typified by innocence and helplessness. The participants’ accounts provide a different alternative, where they are ‘at once frequent victims, frequent offenders and frequently moved on.’ It is vital that the criminal justice agencies acknowledge that people who come into repeat contact with the criminal justice system agencies as perpetrators of offences are also frequently victims in their own right, and support them through a trauma-informed lens.
"It is important to emphasise the need for good quality and secure accommodation. A recent peer-led review … showed that serious and repeat victimisation is common, and experiences of physical and sexual assault are alarmingly high among people in supported accommodation settings."
- Social Exclusion Unit (2002). Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners. London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; Moore, R. (ed.).
- A compendium of research and analysis on the Offender Assessment System (OASys) 2009-2013. London: Ministry of Justice.
- Ministry of Justice (2012). Accommodation, homelessness and reoffending of prisoners:
Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) survey.
- HMI Probation (2020). Accommodation and support for adult offenders in the community and on release from prison in England.
- HMI Prisons (2015). Changing patterns of substance misuse in adult prisons and service responses. Online:
- Ministry of Justice (2017). Reoffence Type Data Tool. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/
- Revolving Doors Agency, Public Health England and Home Office (2017). Rebalancing Act.
- Ministry of Justice (2019). Deaths of Offenders In the Community. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/
- Revolving Doors Agency (2019). We are victims too. www.revolving-doors.org.uk/blog/we-are-victims-too
Stable, secure and safe accommodation: why can’t people in contact with the criminal justice system access it? - Nicola Drinkwater, Clinks
Imagine waking up knowing that today is the day you will be released from prison and all the hopes and dreams you would have for rebuilding your life. Everything should be in place to enable you to begin to do this. If you need benefits, you should have an appointment set up with the local job centre, you should have ID to help start your claim, you should have a bank account; if you have health needs, everything should be set up for you
to receive your prescription. And you should have somewhere to live. But all too often this isn’t the case, with resettlement support failing to ensure people have their basic needs met when they are released from prison.
For example, take Josh’s experience. He is a prison leaver supported by the charity Switchback and was released from prison with a £46 release grant, homeless. He was forced to sleep in friends’ cars, sofa-surf (with people still connected to crime) and at weekends, he slept on trains. Josh tried
to find housing but was shunted between different council offices and unable to make a housing application because he didn’t have ID. Without ID he couldn’t get Universal Credit; without Universal Credit, he was ineligible to stay in hostels, and so he continued sleeping where he could.
There are big challenges with data collection and transparency, but what we do know is that Josh’s experience isn’t unique and many people leave prison without somewhere safe to live. In 2018-19, Ministry of Justice statistics show that less than half of people (48%) released from prison had settled accommodation on release.1 Nearly one in six (16%) was homeless or sleeping rough. If we look at how many people this relates to, HM Inspectorate of Probation tells us that in the same year, 11,435 individuals were released from prison homeless. And that is just the people we know about.2
If we look at those statistics in more depth, we see that at least 22% of people released from prison who are deemed to be the highest-risk individuals in the probation caseload were released from prison without stable accommodation in 2018-2019 – equivalent to 6,515 individuals. And only 75 per cent of individuals supervised by the National Probation Service (currently people who are identified as high risk) were in settled accommodation 12 months after release.3
Accessing accommodation is not only a basic human right, but research has shown that it is an essential part of someone’s desistance process and can reduce reoffending. For example a recent thematic report published by HM Inspectorate of Probation found that the proportion of service users recalled or resentenced to custody within 12 months of release was almost double for those without settled accommodation.
Why is this happening?
People in contact with the criminal justice system face a range of barriers when trying to access secure, safe and stable accommodation. In April 2018 we published a paper that detailed all of these issues in depth, and gave solutions about how these can be addressed.4 Although this was
two years ago, sadly many of these challenges remain – but as the landscape has now shifted, due to changes in legislation such as the Homelessness Reduction Act as well as the impact of Covid-19, new and emerging challenges are being felt by people in contact with the justice system.
The following aims to give a flavour of some of these challenges and focuses on those that are unique to people who have been convicted of a crime.
- Everyone and no-one’s responsibility – Responsibility for securing safe, stable and appropriate accommodation for people in contact with the criminal justice system does not rest with one government department or local agency. It relies on strong partnership working and the transfer of information across and between different organisations and agencies. Although there are some examples of good practice to support this, all too often people in contact with the CJS fall through the gaps. A cross-departmental accommodation strategy led by the Ministry of Justice would go some way to addressing this challenge. Many people in contact with the CJS have protected characteristics under the Equalities Act (2010) or experience multiple disadvantage, meaning they often require specialist support and services to ensure their specific needs can be met. An accommodation strategy should be responsive to the needs of people with protected characteristics.
- Lack of reliable data – There is no reliable data collected about accommodation outcomes for people serving a community penalty and on release from prison. This makes it challenging to see the scale of the problem and what needs to be implemented to alleviate any challenges. This needs to be swiftly addressed, with key stakeholders including prisons and probation providers being routinely required to record and publish both the accommodation needs and long-term outcomes of people in contact with the CJS. This needs to move beyond just accommodation outcomes immediately on release and include longitudinal outcomes.
- Failure to address issues early – As soon as someone comes into contact with the CJS there is an opportunity for agencies to assess and respond to their accommodation needs which can help prevent offending and reoffending. However, people are often not asked about their accommodation needs – and even if they are, they are often not addressed. Opportunities for early intervention and prevention should be capitalised on; every time someone has contact with criminal justice agencies their accommodation needs should be identified and addressed.
Further, just having a conviction can be a barrier to accommodation, particularly for people who have committed certain offences including those of a sexual nature or arson. This is particularly true for access to the private rented sector as many private landlords are unwilling to accommodate people who have been in contact with the criminal justice system. As well as this, some local authorities have been known to define people as being ‘intentionally homeless’ if they have committed a crime, precluding them from support or access to accommodation.
Where do we go from here?
Although many of these challenges are entrenched and without a significant building programme to address lack of stock, it can be challenging to see how these issues can be addressed. But there is hope. Government has recognised these issues, which can often be the first steps to action, and HM Prison and Probation Service have been working to develop an accommodation framework to support partnership working.
And we saw incredible work take place as lockdown measures were introduced across the UK in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ‘everyone in’ initiative was rolled out across local services and we saw organisations work in partnership to ensure everyone who needed accommodation was able to access it. This required innovation and thinking outside of the box as existing accommodation was repurposed and new processes and procedures were developed. Local services worked tirelessly towards the same goal and in some cases, people who had not been able to access accommodation for many years were housed.
That was not without its challenges and we heard that quickly accommodation options were exhausted and people were not able to access support alongside their housing. But there is a lot we can learn from this work and it is essential that these lessons are not lost as we move into the next phase of the pandemic.
Above all, we need there to be clear responsibility and accountability for securing accommodation for people in contact with the criminal justice system. If this doesn’t take place we will continue to see people falling through the gaps and experiencing homelessness as a direct consequence of being in contact with the criminal justice system.
- Ministry of Justice (2018). Freedom of Information request 180915001 by Vicki Cardwell. Available at:
- HM Inspectorate of Probation (2020). Accommodation and support for adult offenders in the community and
on release from prison in England. Online: www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprobation/wp-content/uploads/
sites/5/2020/07/FINAL-Accomodation-Thematic-inspection-report-v1.0.pdf (last accessed 20/08/2020)
- Clinks (2018). RR3 Special Interest Group on accommodation: ensuring the accommodation needs of people
in contact with the criminal justice system are met. Online: www.clinks.org/publication/rr3-briefing-meetingaccommodation-
needs-people-contact-criminal-justice-system (last accessed 28/08/2020)
Caught in the cycle: housing challenges for women and girls in contact with the criminal justice system - Jessica Southgate, Agenda
For many women and girls, it is the culmination of years of poverty and multiple disadvantages that leads them to become involved in the criminal justice system. More than 1.2 million women in England have experienced extensive violence, both physical and sexual abuse, from childhood into adulthood. Without support, they are left to deal with the legacy of the
trauma this causes on their own. This can affect their mental health, feelings of self-worth, and they may also turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. These experiences can be compounded by other forms of inequality and discrimination, adding further layers of disadvantage to the problems they face. This can lead to a downward spiral into homelessness or involvement in the criminal justice system.
Homelessness: a cause and effect of offending
Homelessness and offending are part of a vicious circle. For women who are not already homeless, getting a criminal record or being sent to prison can make an already precarious housing situation even more challenging. Many women commit crimes either directly linked to their homelessness (such as theft or public nuisance offences) or simply to get a roof over their heads. But when they are released, their basic needs (such as safe housing and income) remain unaddressed and they still do not have a secure home to go to.1 Many women who sleep rough have fled abusive partners, yet their only option when they are released from prison is to go back on the streets or return to live with their abuser.2
Around two thirds of the approximately 4,000 women in custody are serving a sentence of six months or less, the majority of which are for non-violent offences. A short sentence dramatically increases the risk of homelessness as benefits payments are stopped and rent arrears mount up, with research showing women are more likely than men to lose a tenancy when they go to prison.3
"A short sentence dramatically increases the risk of homelessness as benefits payments are stopped and rent arrears mount up."
This is backed up by statistics that show around six in 10 women do not have a home to go to on release.4 In 2017, women were reported to have left HMP Bronzefield with nothing but a tent.
The considerable increase in the women’s prison population over the last two decades (which more than doubled between 1995 and 2010), combined with limited and reducing housing stock, makes the problem even greater. Lack of a stable home makes it harder for women to get a job, establish relationships in their community or get support from trusted services over a period of time. It also makes it harder for them to meet any licence conditions they may have, putting them at risk of breaching and recall to prison.
One woman, Alison, who grew up in care and had a history of poor mental health, explained to Agenda how she stayed with an abusive partner out of fear of becoming homeless but had to leave after a brutal attack:
"I had to run out in my dressing gown and shoes. I ran into town and that’s how I became homeless.
"I ended up getting into trouble and being on warrants and all that. I was an angry person, I fought a lot because I was angry against the world. I think it is harder for women, we’re scared and we’re ashamed.5"
It was only with the help of a supportive probation officer, who put her in touch with a voluntary organisation that worked with homeless women, that Alison was able to get her life back on track. Women who have been imprisoned also find it much harder to get their children back into their care, or to keep them there. Too many women face the catch-22 of being made homeless when imprisoned, then struggling to regain care and custody of their children upon release because they don’t have adequate family housing. Each year around 17,700 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment, and 66 per cent of women in prison are mothers with dependent children – demonstrating the scale of the problem.6
Girls and young women
Inappropriate housing or the risk of homelessness can pose a real risk for girls and young women, especially those who have been in care. An estimated two thirds of young women (aged 16-21) in custody have recently been in statutory care.7 This is compared to just under half of boys.
Girls aged between 16 and 17 in the justice system, who have been in care or on the edge of care, may have experienced being placed in mixed-gender, unregulated accommodation. When they reach 18, they may also be placed in mixed hostels and accommodation with much older adults, putting them at significant risk and potential exposure to criminal activity.
These are widely recognised as inappropriate environments for vulnerable children and young adults, with qualitative data indicating that girls in these settings are at risk of exploitation from both their peers as well as adult men that they come into contact with there.8 These experiences can be the start of a cycle of abuse and disadvantage that can draw them into the criminal justice system.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic
Agenda’s new research has found that lockdown exacerbated the risks faced by women being released from prison, with the biggest challenge being a lack of safe accommodation.9
With many services supporting this group of women disrupted and delayed at the beginning of lockdown, some continued to operate on reduced capacity or were reliant on grants to support women into safe housing, meaning the already depleted safety net for women at girls at these critical points has diminished further.
If we are to tackle this, all strategies to reduce the risk of women and girls entering the criminal justice system must include housing in their solutions. For younger women in particular, this must include support to ensure they are able to manage and maintain their tenancies.
Preparing housing support for women released from prison should be core to resettlement planning, but often is not. This is made harder for women being released from women’s prisons, because as there are fewer prisons, they are more geographically dispersed and further from where they might live or end up. Ensuring women have a home to go to not only reduces the likelihood of them being put at further risk but increases their chances of being safely reunited with their children.
Cross-government leadership and stronger cooperation between central and local government must be aimed at delivering effective community support for women, including housing, as well as mental health provision, addiction treatment, health and social care. Women’s community centres must be at the heart of solutions and partnerships to address the underlying causes of women’s offending, which often include histories of being exploited and abused. As places that provide gender and trauma-informed support, they have been proven to be highly effective in supporting women at risk of offending to make positive changes in their lives.
- House of Commons Justice Committee (2016). Young adults in the criminal justice system. Eighth Report of Session 2017–19.
- The Children’s Society (2015). On your own now: the risks of unsuitable accommodation for older teenagers.
The Children’s Society (2019). Briefing for debate on 16 & 17 year olds in unregulated accommodation.
- Agenda (2020). Voices From Lockdown: A Chance for Change. Online: www.weareagenda.org/covid