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A justice reform charity says “new and better ways” of helping prisoners adjust to life in the real world must be established, to reduce the colossal cost of reoffending. 

The Centre for Justice Innovation report ‘Point Me In The Right Direction: Making Advice Work for Prisoners’ highlights the obstacles faced by those released from prison, and makes recommendations for how to overcome these. 

Barriers include a shortage of affordable housing, the mistrust and discrimination of employers, and a complex and inflexible benefits system. “If we are to reduce the estimated £15bn a year cost of reoffending by prisoners in England and Wales, we need to find new and better ways to help prisoners overcome these hurdles,” asserts document writer Stephen Whitehead. 

Struggle with accommodation

The report highlights that when it comes to housing, for instance, there is a reluctance to assess prisoners prior to their release. Meanwhile, a low credit score and lack of deposit can alienate offenders from the private housing sector. Elsewhere, applications for benefits are not always completed prior to the offender leaving prison due to limited support resources, which means they can be effectively destitute for a number of weeks after release.  

‘Point Me In The Right Direction’ suggests that there are three key reasons why former prisoners aren’t accessing the social welfare advice that could help them. Firstly, it says, they are unaware such services exist, much less how these agencies could help them. 

Cuts to legal aid and other sources of funding also play a huge role, along with what can sometimes be an exponential rise in demand. As a result, waiting times are increased and the help on offer is reduced. 

Thirdly, former prisoners can feel that there is a stigma around their criminal background, with one respondent feeling that “as an ex-con, they’ll do nothing for you”. 

The Centre for Justice Innovation has therefore put forward four recommendations to alleviate these issues.  

Social welfare advice

Firstly, the report advocates for the introduction of advice clinics in prison to help offenders with issues like benefits and housing ahead of release. Meanwhile, probation officers should receive extra training and resources to help them identify when social welfare advice can be useful and to refer clients into these services.

Meanwhile, improved online directories of advice services would help former prisoners access advice, while these web pages would stress that people with criminal records are welcome to use them. Finally, new advice services which specialise in working with offenders, and which employ people with experience of the justice system, should be introduced. 

Mr Whitehead concludes: “Social welfare advice is not a panacea. It will not end the shortage of affordable housing, overcome the prejudices of employers, or change the culture of benefits sanctions. Nonetheless, where prisoners are entitled to support or fair treatment, improved access to social welfare advice can help them secure it.”

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