In engaging with this social injustice, Commonweal hoped to establish a model of appropriate housing and support to meet the needs of people who have been released from prison after a successful appeal. Our hypothesis was that the provision of stable accommodation would help people who had been victims of a miscarriage of justice to get back on their feet, providing them the stability they needed to find work, reconnect with friends and family, and rebuild their lives. By speeding up the transition to independence, the project aimed to reduce the risk of homelessness and demonstrate reduced costs to other mainstream health and support services.
One goal of the project at launch was to build the evidence base on the support needs of people released from prison on appeal, thus helping to make the case to the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health that a formal structured programme of housing and support for this client group is not only appropriate but important.
Background & context
People who have their convictions quashed currently receive very little support from the state. A one-off grant for £50 is available on leaving prison, rising to £80 for those trying to find overnight accommodation in London. But for those who may have spent several years behind bars – and thus have no job, no housing, and perhaps little contact with their families – this is far from adequate.
Victims of a miscarriage of justice must find accommodation, manage their own health needs, find their way back into the job market, and launch any claim for compensation, all without state support. Compensation, when available, may take several years to arrive; in a final injustice, the cost of food and accommodation for the time served in prison is deducted from any reparations awarded. Housing is vital to rebuilding a life after time spent behind bars, yet there are few options and almost no support available to those exiting prison on appeal.
These men and women are therefore highly vulnerable to destitution and homelessness. If they are unable to re-establish their lives, they may fall into substance abuse, disorder, and – ironically – crime. Commonweal believes that the state’s failure to adequately support those who it has wrongfully punished is a double injustice.
The project thus piloted a model of independent accommodation support, available for all victims of a miscarriage of justice and their immediate close family, in order to assist with the transition back into a normal life.
The service provided
The Miscarriages of Justice Project provided information, support and advice to people emerging from the criminal justice system after a successful appeal. This core support and advice service was provided by the Royal Courts of Justice Advice Bureau, while Commonweal Housing financed the provision of short-term housing for the client group, initially to rent but with an option to buy in the longer term.
The specification for the project was developed in close collaboration with RCJAB case workers, drawing upon their experience and expertise in finding settled accommodation for former inmates. The project was designed from the ground up with a strong focus on ensuring that the support and services offered met the needs and experiences of the client group.
The role of Commonweal Housing was to purchase and let housing to prospective occupants identified by the MJSS. The project portfolio was designed to cover a range of needs, including urgent and crisis accommodation, in which tenants might stay for 6-9 months whilst long-term solutions are sought, and other properties providing longer-term, settled accommodation.
At launch, it was anticipated that the duration of joint project would be for five years, that the properties acquired would likely remain in the ownership of Commonweal Housing for that period, and that if Commonweal Housing wished to dispose a house before the end of the agreement period the tenant of the house would have a right of first refusal in relation to purchasing it.
Anticipated outcomes for clients
- Faster access to short term accommodation on release, and therefore less need to resort to local authorities homelessness teams – thus saving councils money
- Greater housing stability, leading to better health and wellbeing, easier access to employment, faster recovery from the mental health impacts of incarceration, and a quicker path to independence
- Improved access to local services including benefit claims, GPs and other healthcare services, developing social networks
The impact of Transforming Rehabilitation
Soon after the launch of the project in 2013, the government announced the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, a radical shake-up of how rehabilitation is managed in the UK. With much of the probation service privatised and contracted to community rehabilitation companies from 2014 onwards, the project as designed no longer fitted into the new institutional landscape, and anticipated funding streams for the support service were no longer available. In addition, the initial phase of the pilot had found that potential clients were spread all over the country, and the ability of Commonweal to provide housing for such a geographically diverse group of individuals was limited.
The need for housing support for those wrongfully convicted remains as strong as ever, but the impact of Transforming Rehabilitation – and the fragmentation of the probation services for ex-offenders into 21 different private companies – means that the project became impossible to deliver as originally conceived. As such, in 2014 the decision was made to end the Miscarriages of Justice project and transfer the housing stock into other Commonweal Projects.
Although Commonweal ended our housing provision for the project in 2014, we have continued to work with the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to investigate and document the housing needs and policy failures that the pilot project had uncovered.
In September 2015, Commonweal published the findings of an academic study by the London School of Economics into the experiences and needs of those wrongfully convicted and released on appeal. The report concluded that the level of support offered to victims of miscarriages of justice is actually lower than that available to genuine offenders. This is despite the fact that many victims face serious hardships as a result of their wrongful conviction, including post-traumatic stress, social withdrawal, and enduring personality changes.
The startling lack of statutory support available to victims can mean many who deserve to receive social housing are rejected. Some fail a local connection test owing to their imprisonment, while others, in a particularly Kafkaesque twist, are even deemed to have caused their own homelessness. To address this compounded injustice, the report recommended government action to compel local councils to categorise victims of miscarriages of justice as vulnerable, and thus eligible for social housing. Taking this recommendation forward, Commonweal received acknowledgement from the then-Housing Minister that vulnerability as a result of a term of imprisonment after a miscarriage of justice is one factor that local authorities should be considering. Commonweal made the case that the Department for Work & Pensions had already recognised the vulnerability of this group within the rules around the work capability assessments.
When his conviction was quashed on appeal, Peter* was 22, and had already spent 4 years behind bars for a crime he had not committed. After his release, Peter faced a range of housing issues but found a complete lack of clear housing advice for his situation and almost no support pathway. This lack of housing advice and support meant that Peter was forced to move frequently between unstable temporary housing arrangements, and constantly had to rebuild his connections to local support services, community networks and the job market. Furthermore, Peter found himself sharing accommodation with people who made his assimilation back into the community difficult. Commonweal Housing began the pilot project with the Miscarriages of Justice Support Service to provide Peter with accommodation in an area he felt safe in, and where his outlook for his future could become more positive.
*Names have been changed