I think we can agree that although crime levels in Devon and Cornwall are low, we all have a vested interest in driving them lower.
That’s why Police and Crime Commissioners work with the criminal justice system to look at innovative ways to reduce reoffending. About a quarter of all prison leavers in England and Wales will reoffend within a year, the latest available figures from the Ministry of Justice suggest. It’s a frustrating situation which costs us all dearly.
The opportunity for reducing crime and the cost of imprisoning people by tackling this epidemic is therefore significant, that is why Police and Crime Commissioners meet representatives of the courts and probation services regularly through something called the regional reoffending board.
We are always interested in innovative solutions that will help ex offenders find work, be able to pay their own way, build their self esteem and stay out of trouble. Far too often the reverse is the case. It is too easy for them to fall into old habits, meet up with people outside the prison walls who are not good for them and end up where they started.
Tackling this is not easy though. A limited number of organisations are willing to take the risk of hiring an ex offender, even fewer are willing to invest their time and money training and equipping them for skilled work.
I am pleased though that one project that shows great promise started right here in Devon and Cornwall. The first property built under the Prisoners Building Homes scheme is now occupied, providing a comfortable home for someone, in Torquay. On the face of it the concept is simple; parts for a home are constructed by prison inmates, they are then assembled on land provided by a local authority by a construction firm with assistance from ex offenders who have been released and are supervised by probation staff.
Both prisoners and probationers will be paid for their work and learn construction skills while they do so. Earnings can only be used for a deposit and rent upon release, so reducing homelessness among prison leavers and strain on the authority housing stock. In return for its involvement the council donating the land gets a new home.
In practice this requires the goodwill of prison governors, Ministry of Justice staff, Probation Service staff, councils and the private sector.
We had all those ingredients in Torbay and test of concept project was a significant success. Its potential has been noted throughout the region and by central Government, with a minister due to attend Friday’s meeting in Gloucester where plans to scale up for the next phase will be discussed. MPs from around the region, business leaders and representatives from central Government will tour one of the show homes and meet prisoners involved in the project.
The next stage involves creating a system by which local authorities can apply to get involved, more prisons can offer their workshops and inmates can be kept busy being useful and productive instead of wasting time in their cells.
With ever increasing pressure on housing stock in the South West and limited budgets, this programme is being watched with interest by councils in the region. We believe we have the blueprint for a plan which could see dozens more homes built in the region in the next few years, but more than that, if the Government likes what they see this Friday it has the potential to reduce homelessness, reoffending and increase the supply of housing to the country’s most needy individuals.