Resettlement for young offenders must be planned early

Young offenders returning to the community are likely to reoffend without resettlement support. Camilla Pemberton looks at how help with housing and job searches is crucial

Josh, 16, feels he “never had a chance” when he left a young offender institution (YOI) after serving a short sentence for drug offences. His mother’s new partner refused to let him come home, and his application for supported housing was refused by his local authority, even though he had spent time in care.

Instead, Josh was sent to a local homeless unit which provided a bed and breakfast, but no support. With “nothing to do but take drugs and feel depressed” Josh was soon back inside.

Every year in the UK thousands of children leave custody for life in the community. The following year three-quarters of them will reoffend. It rarely surprises the officers who see them leave. “Too many vulnerable youngsters head off with no home, school or job to go to,” says one. “It’s never long before they’re back. They act tough, but they’re not. They’re children in need.”

Chris Callender, assistant director and head of the legal team at the Howard League for Penal Reform, believes almost all young people will need some form of resettlement support when leaving prison – from supported housing, to health services or help accessing work.

The law is clear: councils are duty bound to provide this, yet Callender claims many children are still being “failed” because of poor assessments, scarce resources and problems engaging partner agencies.

Figures compiled for the 2008 Youth Crime Action Plan estimated that 15% of children leave prison without suitable accommodation, making effective resettlement virtually impossible, while around 50-60% of calls to the Howard League’s legal service for young offenders concern unmet resettlement needs. In the last six months of last year the League took 40 cases of legal action against 31 local authorities.

“These young people aren’t disciplined,” says Frances Done, chair of the Youth Justice Board (YJB). The challenge for councils, she says, is to, “coordinate services to plan resettlement from the moment a child goes into custody.”

“Local authorities aren’t necessarily set up that way…but the things that make a difference for a young person leaving prison are: the supported housing available that day, the job that starts next week and the drug treatment that carries straight on from custody into the community,” she says.

Andrew Webb, policy lead on youth justice for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says services must be ready to be “flexible, resilient and persistent.”

“We are dealing with some of the most unstable young people in society,” he says. “Some slip through the net but others repeatedly force their way through it.”

Research by Di Hart, principal officer for youth justice and welfare at the National Children’s Bureau, identified that culture clashes between youth offending teams (YOTs) and children’s services can act as barriers. “YOTs are geared to reduce reoffending, but there aren’t clear thresholds as to how far they should go to meet needs and how far social services should go,” Hart says.

To ensure flexible, coordinated services, the YJB has funded 109 YOTs to develop multi-agency approaches and, last year, set up two “resettlement consortia” around Hindley YOI in the North West and Ashfield YOI in the South West.

Webb, director of children’s services in Stockport – one of four children’s services teams working closely with their local YOTs, authorities, housing services and accommodation providers in the North West consortia – is optimistic. Although it is early days, with the first cohort of young people involved due for release next month, he says resettlement is going up the agenda. “At a time of falling youth custody rates, we’re well placed to tackle issues and raise the profile of this group of young people.”

Frances Done also points to the financial side: “Investing in resettlement, and getting it right, will make all the difference and could save a fortune.”

A place at a YOI costs £60,000 per year, and two-thirds of the YJB’s budget goes towards custody. The most recent cost-benefit analysis found that effective resettlement over a nine month period could save councils £20,400 per child, annually.

Helen Mercer, manager of the North West consortia, who reviewed better access to education and employment, suitable accommodation and cross-partner agency working, says: “The idea is not to reinvent the wheel but to find the links in the system that aren’t working properly and strengthen them through better communication and joint working”.

Good practice

Ashfield YOI runs Making the Change, a halfway house staffed by officers from the YOI who can maintain relationships with young people making the transition from custody. Staff teach life skills, such as budgeting and cooking, and help with benefits and job-seeking. A similar initiative has been working at the Heron Unit, a halfway house attached to Feltham YOI, since November 2009.

In Leicestershire staff from the local YMCA go into YOIs to help plan resettlement. The YMCA provides a range of housing, from very supported to independent flats. Staff offer young people round the clock resettlement support and help them to develop life skills, apply for jobs and return to education or training. It has been highlighted as a model of excellence by the YJB.

Hampshire children’s services work with Wessex YOT to resettle young people straight back into the community, housing them with highly trained foster carers. Foster carers visit children in custody and, after release, advocate for their needs, liaising with the YOT, local authority and birth families.

Council duties

2002 Munby judgment ruled the Children Act 1989 did apply to young people in YOIs

2004 YJB national standards state resettlement plans should be drawn up at the point of sentencing and YOTs must monitor partners in home local authority to ensure planned resettlement services.

2008 Youth Crime Action Plan reinforced the role of children’s services in overseeing resettlement provision as part of their ongoing responsibility for assessing and meeting all children’s needs.

2009 Southwark judgement clarified that councils should provide suitable accommodation for 16 and 17 year olds ‘in need’ or at risk of homelessness under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.

Case study: Lewis*, 17, Croydon

After serving half of a 12 month sentence for drug offences, Lewis, 17, was released on tag to live in the community, monitored by Croydon YOT. He started a college course, but without any support or encouragement later dropped out, accumulated debts and started to reoffend. After just three months he was back in prison. Six months prior to his release, he became involved with the London-based SOS project, run by the St Giles Trust. The project found him suitable accomodation and, later, work with the project as a peer mentor. “I know I would be back in prison if I didn’t have someone to help me and guide me on the right path,” said Lewis. The SOS project has worked with over 200 young offenders aged 16 to 25. It has a re-offending rate of around 25%, against the national average of 75%. All staff are ex-offenders and work with young people in prison and the community, offering tailored support which is continued upon release and throughout the period of resettlement.

*Not his real name.

Profile of young offenders

40-49% have been in local authority care at some point

18% subject to care orders

31% have mental health problems

45% have used more than one type of drug

Source: Youth Justice Board

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