Life after prison: reoffending, social exclusion and unemployment
Authors: Karen Steadman
09 May 2013
As the government seeks to tackle the high reoffending rates among ex-prisoners in the UK, its time to review how we approach some of the primary causes of re-offending – social exclusion and unemployment.
The Offender Rehabilitation Bill, outlined in yesterdays Queen’s speech emphasises the importance of allowing probation officers to deal with the “causes of reoffending”. Focus is on those who have undertaken shorter jail terms - whose evidence indicates they have a higher likelihood of reoffending. The Bill would create ‘a new rehabilitation activity requirement’, explained as‘flexbile requirements within which probation providers can require offenders to attend appointments or activities that support thein rehabiiltation’. Though employment and training are not explicitly mentioned, this will likely (and should) be a large component.
Data shows that nearly three quarters of offenders claimed an out-of-work benefit within two years of leaving prison, with around 30,000 former prisoners claiming Job Seekers Allowance within three months. It is estimated that offenders will also be unemployed for a longer period of time than other claimants.
Evidence is clear that offenders with stable and high quality employment are less likely to reoffend. Employment, among others things, facilitates the creation of social links, provides a sense of stability, and provides an income – all of which reduce the likelihood of criminality. This includes use of illegal drugs – highlighted for monitoring in the bill during the 12 month supervisory period.
We already know how hard it is at the moment to get a job. Available jobs are limited - with a recruitment website estimating in 2011 that there were an average of 23 applications per job, with considerable regional and industry variation (e.g. 46 people apply for every customer service job). Ex-offenders face a number of additional barriers to finding work – not only in terms of the gaps in their job history due to their spell in prison, but evidence also indicates that this cohort is likely to have lower literacy levels and fewer qualifications. Training and education may be able to account for some of this – examples such as Timpsons’ in-prison training program have had excellent outcomes with an estimated 75% of staff taken from the program still working at Timpsons after six months.
However, the stigma associated with having been in prison remains for many the greatest barrier to finding employment. There is a body of evidence which sees limited value in short-term prison sentences, when weighed up against their longer term costs. And indeed, in terms of employment, the evidence indicates that a considerable number of employers will reject a candidate based on their criminal record. This may impact on an individual’s confidence and motivation to seek employment in a society which does not appear to want them.
It is suggested therefore that within the “flexible requirements” of the Bill, a considerable amount of focus should be given to looking at ways to actively support ex-offenders into the job market. Research has shown how highly-valued support is from a supervisor, particularly in terms of overcoming the practical obstacles associated with unemployment - making probation supervisors well-placed to provide this support. Addressing drug and housing issues will be part of this, but much more is required. We are yet to see the impact of the support provided through the Work Programme, but early evidence does not look promising. It is a likely that a group with such high levels of social exclusion and stigma will require a more focussed and structured level of support for re-entry to the job market. Integrating services around the key areas of drug rehabilitation, housing, probation and mental health are just as essential.
There are likely lessons to be learnt from existing supported employment services and models used by other excluded groups, eg Individual Placement and Support, which is well evidenced and widely used to provide support for people with mental health conditions to remain in or re-enter the workforce. Having an employment-support-specialist type role will be important for a number of reasons. Firstly, to provide on-going support for the individual, not only as they look for work, but also while they are in it. Secondly, in order to form a relationship with the employer, providing them with the reassurance they need when taking what they may perceive as the ‘risk’ of employing someone with a criminal record. Further to this, peer support and mentoring are often seen as having a significant role, particularly terms of increasing confidence that there are opportunities out there for ex-offenders, and there is a life after prison.
In order to address reoffending rates, former offenders need to be given a reason to believe that there is a life for them out there that will not be improved by offending. If this government is, as they purport, focusing on supporting “hard working people”, they need to do what is necessary to make sure that all people have the opportunity to work hard.
 Healy, D. (2010) ‘The Dynamics of Desistance: Charting Pathways through Change’ Cullompton: Willan.
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