National system for post-custody housing

Amid concerns over the quality of support young offenders receive when released from custody, a report calls for fundamental changes.

An investigation by the Prisons and Probation inspectorates has concluded that many young offenders are being "set up to fail" with children not being effectively prepared to re-enter their communities and start to live safe law-abiding lives.

The provision of suitable accommodation was found to be an ongoing issue, with some children not knowing where they were going to live until the day of release, and services they needed often not in place to help them resettle.

Among other things, the inspectorates recommend the establishment of a national network of community-based accommodation for children who posed the highest risks to the public.

Justin Russell, chief inspector of probation, says the current system needs changing.

"We've ended up with a system that seems to rely on last-minute spot purchasing of quite expensive and specialist accommodation, often out of area because authorities haven't got that [local] facility," he says.

"My impression is they are paying different prices and often over the odds because it is at the last minute."

Block purchasing

Block purchasing done nationally by a government department - most likely the Department for Education - with local authorities booking beds when necessary and being charged for it would be a more efficient system, he adds.

A similar system is already in place for the provision of secure children's homes (SCH) places. There are currently 15 SCHs across England and Wales, with places purchased and allocated centrally.

"It feels like a much more organised system where they are getting better value for money because they are doing it on a national basis," Russell says.

"There's an argument for saying there is a case for doing something similar for children coming out of custody."

Each SCH placement costs approximately £200,000 a year, but a resettlement system would likely be much cheaper as places would not need to be secure and most support would be community based.

There are roughly 800 under-18s in custody, with approximately 550 young people being released each year.

Russell believes that, of these, anywhere between 150 and 200 could be considered at high risk, describing this as a "manageable number" in logistical terms.

"In some ways, we are not talking about additional cost [to pay for a national accommodation network]," he says. "Large amounts of money are already being spent on these children, but not in a very intelligent way."

Chris Wright, chief executive of Catch22, which runs young offender resettlement services, believes a three-month period following release would allow resettlement opportunities to be maximised.

"But if we are to be serious about sustaining progress, then it could be longer," he says.

"Such a model could be based on the ‘step down' principles whereby follow-on support post engagement is provided on an outreach model.

"This support may be phased with intense support immediately after a young person leaves the [resettlement] accommodation, gradual reduction as they integrate back into the community, with a ‘step up' support option available at any point potentially back into the service should the young person require, to reduce risks of reoffending."

Wright says provision should be located in close proximity to a young person's community, enabling easier access to other statutory and voluntary agencies they are involved with.

"Furthermore, it would allow resettlement support to be tailored to the specific needs of their area - for example, education, training and employment provision would align with labour market needs," he adds.

"London, the North West and the East of England are identified in youth custody statistics as having the most amount of young people held outside their region, therefore may be deemed the priority [locations for provision]."

The inspectorates' report states that for a few children, where resettlement provision was good, co-operative work takes place between agencies focused on the individual needs and risks of the child at an early stage.

This was pursued throughout custody into the community and provided immediately on release, resulting in the child being in a "good position to turn their lives around".

Housing strategies

Campbell Robb, chief executive of social justice charity Nacro, says developing national housing strategies and networks is critical to ensuring every child has a stable roof over their head on release, but is "just the first building block".

"We know that housing is an essential foundation, but it needs to come with the right support wrapped around it, planned well in advance with the child so they can prepare for their release," he says.

"Individualised support after custody is critical in enabling children to navigate the other fundamental blocks of resettlement, including health and family relationships, and ultimately reducing reoffending.

"In an often extremely stressful time transitioning back into the community, having someone to provide guidance and support is vital, but current access to this kind of support is patchy and nowhere near comprehensive enough."

Robb adds that "customised and consistent wraparound support" needs to be in place for every child leaving custody "to give them the best chance of creating a positive future".

However, Sir Alan Wood, a trustee of the Youth Justice Board and chair of the Residential Care Leadership Board - which is overseeing so-called "Staying Close" pilots offering young people leaving residential care the chance to move into nearby supported accommodation - does not believe a national network for young people leaving custody is the right approach.

Tailored plans

"Resettlement is the Cinderella of the youth offending services that we have," he says.

"It's the one that people too often act on at the last moment. The concerns raised about it are well balanced and well based, but there are pockets of very good practice and I think we should look to those for what possibly could be done."

"I don't think the government can provide contracts centrally that can deal with this.

"The issues around resettlement are so particular to the child and their area that the most important agencies dealing with it are the local authorities - for example, what works well in Leicestershire, might not in Cumbria or Islington or Hackney."

Instead, Wood called for greater focus on there being tailored plans for young people.

"The government's role here is to set out the national ambition, what good practice looks like, and to encourage and incentivise local authorities to do more to ensure that all children leaving secure accommodation - and residential care generally - are given ongoing support and attention," he adds.

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