One of the most significant problems that has dogged society for decades, if not centuries, is that of reoffending.
Once criminals become involved in the criminal justice system, all too often they enter a cycle that is too hard to break. Lack of opportunities and useful skills for those who have committed offences means that falling back into a life of crime is sometimes the easiest option.
Many of those we see on our streets are ex-offenders who are on a miserable merry-go-round of living on the streets, committing crimes and then being swept back into prisons. Charity the Howard League of Penal Reform showed that 67% of former prisoners in England and Wales who identified as homeless reoffended within a year of their release. More than half of those who reoffended (54.2%) in the same timeframe were in unsettled accommodation.
In other words, a home is a basic requirement to launch a life from. Without one few stand a chance.
Last year the Ministry of Justice published a major report on reoffending which estimated that the total estimated social and economic cost to society of reoffending was £18.1billion. Not only is there the immediate cost on policing, an under-strain prison service and the criminal justice system, but there is the emotional cost on the victims of crime and the families of the offender who have to face the consequences of having a loved one behind bars.
The long-term effects on children whose parents are locked up cannot be underestimated, and unfortunately these innocent young people have less chance of leading productive and successful lives than their peers. An important study on family criminality found that the biggest risk factor of an adult having an antisocial personality was having a convicted parent. Interestingly adults whose mums had served time in prison had worse outcomes than those whose fathers had.
The country can ill afford to continue to fund this revolving door of reoffending at the best of times. When the Treasury is spending billions on propping up the economy during the coronavirus pandemic there is added urgency to reduce the burden it places on us all.
Sooner or later we will be in recovery mode from the pandemic, and Britain will need skilled and employable people to drive the country forward. One sector that has had a prolonged skills shortage is construction. As the country also faces a housing shortage this situation is far from ideal.
I hope that a project supported by my office will provide a model that will both boost former prisoners’ chances of finding employment and provide the skills and homes to support a house building programme that will in turn boost the economy.
The concept is that prisoners will be taught the skills necessary to construct modular, low cost and zero-carbon homes that will be assembled on under-used sites already owned by the public sector. These homes will then be managed by local authorities to reduce housing pressures. It should result in more employable former prisoners and fewer people living on our streets.
The pilot project will start coming together at HMP Leyhill in Gloucester next month, where prisoners will be taught how to assemble the panels that will make up the home. The next stage will see these panels, which are heavily insulated with environmentally-friendly straw, on a site in Torquay that has been provided by the council. That assembly will be carried out by a prisoner on day release from Channings Wood Prison in Newton Abbot.
This pioneering pilot project is only in its early stages and is certainly challenging to deliver. It involves cooperation between organisations across the public and private sectors who have never worked together, with the added complication of the coronavirus pandemic and its associated restrictions.
The good news is that this work is due to start soon and the potential for this project to be replicated, with benefits for communities around the country, is incredible.