Criminals are “significantly more likely” to reoffend if they are homeless when they are freed from jail, a watchdog has warned.
Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell said “widespread homelessness” and a lack of suitable housing was “jeopardising” chances for rehabilitation.
An inspection of services in England in February and March found offenders released from prison into “unstable” accommodation were “significantly more likely to reoffend, be sentenced for another crime or be back behind bars”.
Homelessness, rough sleeping, living in temporary housing or ‘sofa surfing’ with friends or family are all classed as unstable or “unsettled” accommodation.
A report on the findings said: “Many individuals go into prison homeless and even more leave with nowhere to live.”
According to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures cited by the watchdog, 11,435 offenders were homeless when they were freed from jail in 2018-2019.
During the same period 4,742 homeless people started community sentences.
Inspectors were “particularly disturbed” to find a high rate of homelessness among high-risk offenders supervised by the National Probation Service (NPS).
More than 3,700 criminals supervised by the NPS, many of them convicted of sexual or violent offences, were homeless when they left prison in 2018-2019.
Councils have a “duty to prevent and relieve homelessness” but not to house offenders being supervised by probation unless they are deemed vulnerable, the report said.
Funding handed to local authorities to help offenders find their own accommodation fell by 59% in five years and is not ring-fenced, it added.
The inspection found examples of the number of bail hostel beds dropping by 90 in Kent and 14 in Middlesbrough.
Although inspectors found examples of good work in some parts of London, Luton and Hull, Mr Russell called on the Government to develop a “national strategy that supports public protection and offender rehabilitation”, adding: “The coronavirus lockdown has further highlighted the urgent need to ensure housing for this often-vulnerable group.”
He reiterated calls to increase the number of beds in bail hostels – known as approved premises where offenders are monitored after release – and to ensure they are not moved until suitable housing is available.
There are currently around 100 buildings and 2,200 beds around the country.
Mr Russell previously highlighted concerns when reviewing the case of serial rapist Joseph McCann, who went on a sex-attack spree after being allowed to stay with relatives because probation officers twice tried and failed to house him in a bail hostel.
Offenders leaving prison need a “safe place to call home”, he said, adding: “It gives them a solid foundation on which to build crime-free lives.
“It is difficult for probation services to protect the public and support rehabilitation if individuals are not in stable accommodation.”
Having “settled” accommodation – renting with a tenancy longer than three months, living in supporter housing or being a homeowner – helps offenders find work, open a bank account and access services, he added.
Out of a sample size of cases of 116 offenders, inspectors found 65% of those released to unsettled accommodation had reoffended within a year of leaving prison, compared to 44% who were in settled accommodation.
Inspectors also heard from offenders who told of being sent back to abusive homes or reoffending just to get “put back inside” because of difficulties in finding other accommodation.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homeless charity Crisis, described the findings as “shameful but sadly not surprising” and called on the Government to place a “greater emphasis” on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the problems had been “common knowledge for several years” and accused the Government of an “inexcusable” absence of a coherent plan, adding: “No amount of good work in prison will achieve rehabilitation if the basics of support after release are ignored.
“Spending billions on new prisons, but peanuts on accommodation for the people they release, is obviously futile.”
Juliet Lyon, chairman of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody, welcomed the report, adding: “Fears of homelessness or return to an unsafe, abusive environment on release can trigger self-harm or suicide attempts in custody. Far more can, and must, be done to keep people safe.”
An MoJ spokesman said: “Having a safe and secure place to live is a crucial factor in cutting reoffending, and the Probation Service works closely with councils to fulfil its duty to help prison leavers into stable accommodation.
“Since this review, we have also introduced new teams dedicated to finding housing, are increasing spaces in approved premises, and our £6.4 million pilot – part of the Government’s rough sleeping strategy – has helped hundreds of offenders stay off the streets. We are also reviewing our referral process to help prevent homelessness.”