Miscarriages of Justice – a double social injustice

Commonweal launches a new project to research the structured support and resettlement needs of people wrongly imprisoned by the state.

The legal system is not perfect and sometimes mistakes are made. People are imprisoned when they should not have been. Sometimes those mistakes are picked up quickly as part of the legal system at a first appeal… some would say this is the system working correctly. However, sometimes they are not. Sometimes people will spend many years in prison, becoming increasingly institutionalised whilst they battle, eventually, to clear their name. These are victims of a miscarriage of justice.

For Commonweal the rights or wrongs and the sometimes arcane processes of the legal and court systems are not the key issue; for us the most damning social injustice is what happens after the state has acknowledged a mistake was made and someone’s sentence is quashed and they are a free person.

As a free person they are not eligible for any of the structured support or resettlement processes (inadequate as they may be) that are afforded to those who are guilty. As an innocent person you get no structured help or support to address the post-traumatic stress or the institutionalisation you have suffered. There is no mapped out accommodation support or pathway to meet your immediate or longer-term needs. No wonder therefore that too many victims of miscarriages of justice descend into a spiral of mental and physical health decline, frequently unable to access stable accommodation, and having to rebuild new support links as they rebound from accommodation to accommodation.

At Commonweal we have established a new project with the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). Through this we hope to demonstrate to the powers that be that not only is there a moral deficit that needs to be addressed by recognising the practical support needs of victims of miscarriages of justice; but providing stable accommodation options for those that need it can reduce the call upon mainstream mental and physical health services; the risk of engagement with the criminal justice system, and therefore overall cost savings to the same State that helped create the issue in the first place.

Commonweal will be helping to provide a range of first stage flats to give a period of stability at a point of crisis either immediately upon release or later, all too frequently when relations with family or friends break down as all sides recognise the changed person who has emerged after years of imprisonment.

We will then work with the individual and the CAB to identify a bespoke, longer-term housing solution.

As with all our projects, Commonweal will appoint expert evaluators to help us assess whether our model is successful, and how best it should be operated by others in the future.

We will be working with people like Jim*.

Jim was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2005. The conviction was quashed in March 2012, after spending seven years in prison.
Working with the CAB Jim had mentioned that his main priority would be to get accommodation of his own rather than return to live with his family as his relationship with his wife and children had been seriously affected by his imprisonment and he and his wife had divorced. He was also wary of returning to the area where the incident precipitating his arrest occurred – but that was where his few remaining friends were.

The CAB made a homelessness application to a nearby local authority which was turned down as the council didn’t believe Jim to be homeless, and argued that he did not have a local connection. Jim chose not to appeal the decision as he had found temporary work with accommodation attached. He felt he would prefer to sort out his long-term housing once he felt more confident. After a few months working, Jim had to resign due the pressure he felt being back with people. He reported that he was having panic attacks and experiencing anxiety. Jim is currently on Employment Support Allowance and is staying temporarily with friends. He still wants to move away from the area and is increasingly anxious.

* Name has been changed

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