Housing and Reoffending: Supporting people who serve short-term sentences to secure and sustain stable accommodation on liberation

The research focused on the problems that people who serve short sentences in Scotland have finding and keeping stable housing and the services that can help improve housing outcomes. The findings describe a complex cycle of housing problems faced by people serving short sentences, their interlinked causes and impacts and the difficulties these problems pose in desistance from offending.


1.1. The Ministerial Group on Offender Reintegration was established in October 2013 to address the demand for better integration between the justice system and wider universal services, and to focus attention on the role of non-justice sector contributions to the reintegration of individuals transitioning from custody back to our communities.

1.2. The Group recognised that many professionals working in housing and criminal justice believed there to be links between finding and / or keeping stable accommodation and reducing reoffending among people who served short-term prison sentences in Scotland[1]. For that reason, one of the Group’s recommendations was to commission research into the housing experiences of this group (Scottish Government, 2014b).

1.3. The purpose of the research was to find out: what sort of housing problems people who serve short sentences may face; the housing-related services available to them (and any gaps)[2]; and the impact of these services in addressing the reported problems. This report presents the findings.

Aim of the research and research questions

1.4. The aim of the study was to provide evidence and understanding to inform the development of policy and practice for preventing homelessness, securing stable accommodation and improving the housing outcomes for those who serve short sentences in Scotland. The Scottish Government set out six research questions:

1. What is the extent and nature of issues and barriers that people who serve short sentences in Scotland perceive they have surrounding finding and keeping a home at trigger points before, during and after imprisonment? (Addressed in Chapters 2 and 4.)

2. What is the extent and nature of issues and barriers that people who serve short sentences in Scotland have surrounding finding and keeping a home at trigger points before, during and after imprisonment, as perceived by the SPS, criminal justice social workers, housing officers and others that may have insights into the difficulties they face? (Addressed in Chapters 2 and 4.)

3. What types of services (including but not exclusively supported housing for women) that focus on improving housing outcomes for people who serve short sentences in Scotland are delivered by local authorities as landlords and registered social landlords and the third sector? (Addressed in Chapter 3.)

4. What (if any) early indications are there of improved outcomes (related to housing, health, employment and potentially reoffending) that these services contribute to and how? (Addressed in Chapter 3.)

5. What impact do difficulties with housing have on other known difficulties faced by people who serve short sentences including getting and keeping employment and dealing with health issues including substance abuse? (Addressed in Chapter 2.)

6. What are the practice recommendations for preventing homelessness and securing stable accommodation that will enable the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and housing organisations to improve the housing outcomes for people who serve short sentences in Scotland? (Addressed in Chapter 5.)

Context for the research

1.5. Before presenting the findings, it is important to set the research in its wider context with a brief summary of:

  • Existing research relating to housing issues and “desistance” from offending (i.e. the process of reducing, and ceasing reoffending).
  • Policy developments and legislative provisions affecting support to address housing issues for people who serve short sentences in Scotland.
  • Developments relating to reintegration, and support with housing issues.
  • Planned changes in community justice in Scotland.

1.6. The context is complex, and this section provides a summary, with a more detailed review in Annexe 2. Annexe 7 provides full bibliographic references.

Existing research relating to housing issues and desistance from offending

1.7. Research in Scotland has shown that there can be significant costs to the public purse from homelessness and reoffending. The Prevention of Homelessness Guidance (Scottish Government and CoSLA, 2009), for example, cited the average cost of a “typical” example of homelessness as £15,000, with costs of around £83,000 for a more complex case. The total economic and social costs of reoffending have been estimated at around £3 billion a year (Audit Scotland, 2012).

1.8. In the last 10 years, understanding has developed of the process by which individuals stop offending, and the factors that can affect this. Research has described “desistance” as a complex and highly individual process (McNeill et al, 2012). It can take a number of years and may require a lot of support (Ministry of Justice, 2013).

1.9. Research in Scotland has highlighted the importance of community support structures in helping promote desistance (McNeill et al, 2012). There is evidence that appropriate and stable accommodation are critical to this (NACRO, 1999; Social Exclusion Unit, 2002; Rough Sleepers Unit, 2002) and that loss of accommodation can make it less likely that people will stop offending (Carlisle, 1996; Reid Howie Associates, 2004; Loucks, 2007).

1.10. People who serve short sentences can have a range of housing problems, listed here and explored in more depth in Annexe 2 (pghs A2:18-34), including: rent or mortgage arrears; loss of possessions; loss of accommodation; homelessness; inappropriate and / or poor quality accommodation; difficulties in sustaining a tenancy; and barriers to obtaining accommodation as a result of the nature of an offence (Carlisle, 1996; HMI Prisons / HMI Probation, 2001; Social Exclusion Unit, 2002; Loucks, 2007; Reid Howie Associates, 2001; 2002a). Some factors can exacerbate and vary the housing issues people face such as: experiences of domestic abuse (Scottish Executive, 1998; Reid Howie Associates, 2001; Scottish Government, 2012); disability (Reid Howie Associates, 2001; 2004; 2009; 2013; Bottoms et al, 2004; Loucks, 2006; 2007; Prison Reform Trust, 2012); and age (Justice Committee, 2013).

1.11. Many people who serve short sentences have housing problems before they are imprisoned including: homelessness; living in poor quality accommodation; and arrears (Reid Howie Associates, 2004; Bottoms et al, 2004; Houchin, 2005; Loucks, 2007; Audit Scotland, 2012; Shelter, 2015) and housing issues can also be a consequence of serving a short sentence (Carlisle, 1996; Weaver and Armstrong, 2012). Further, people who serve short sentences can find it difficult to obtain and keep accommodation when they are released (Reid Howie Associates, 2004; 2015; Loucks, 2007; and summarised in Shelter, 2015). Relatedly, evidence suggests that people who leave prison can be ill-prepared to live independently (Loucks, 2007; Reid Howie Associates, 2009).

1.12. There has been relatively little research to date about the housing-related services available to people who serve short sentences. A few studies have suggested these can help improve housing outcomes (Reid Howie Associates, 2004; 2013), but research has also found that people who serve short sentences can have difficulty accessing services (HMI Prisons and Probation, 2001; Reid Howie Associates, 2001; 2004; 2013; and 2015 forthcoming; Loucks, 2007; and summarised in Shelter, 2015) and there can be a “postcode lottery” of provision (Reid Howie Associates, 2004).

1.13. There is also evidence to suggest that there are not enough smaller properties which may be suitable for people leaving custody, and these are subject to high levels of demand (Scottish Government, 2013). Research has also suggested that there can be a shortage of supported accommodation (Reid Howie Associates, 2004).

Policy developments and legislative provisions

1.14. A number of aspects of housing and other legislative provisions are particularly relevant to housing-related services for people who serve short sentences. Many people leaving custody are homeless or threatened with homelessness (Carnie et al, 2013) and the most relevant legislation is that which relates to supporting them.

1.15. Part II of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended in 2001 and 2003 by the Housing [Scotland] Act 2001; and the Homelessness etc. [Scotland] Act 2003) sets out the powers of, and duties on local authorities to deal with applications for housing on the grounds that people are homeless, or threatened with homelessness. The key provisions, in summary, are that anyone is entitled to settled accommodation where the local authority has reason to believe they are unintentionally homeless or threatened with homelessness. The legislation also requires a local authority to provide temporary accommodation for a reasonable period while enquiries are made about the application.

1.16. Section 2 of The Housing Scotland Act 2001 gave local authorities a duty to ensure that advice and information about homelessness and the prevention of homelessness is available to “any person in the authority’s area”. Since 2010, this has generally been achieved through a “Housing Options” route. The Scottish Government describes this as a process which starts with housing advice when someone approaches a local authority with a housing problem, and involves considering their options and choices in the widest sense, with a focus on early intervention (Scottish Government, 2011).

1.17. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 introduced a new duty for local authorities to assess and provide housing support to homeless households. This came into effect on 1st June 2013.

1.18. Housing Benefit and other benefits can be important for people who serve short sentences (and can affect whether someone can pay their accommodation costs while in custody, and keep their accommodation until they are released). When an individual is remanded in custody or sentenced to custody, their eligibility for Housing Benefit changes, and their eligibility for other benefits may end (Citizens Advice, 2015).

1.19. Those remanded in custody are entitled to Housing Benefit for up to 52 weeks, but those sentenced to custody are only entitled to any Housing Benefit if there is a reasonable expectation that they could resume a tenancy within 13 weeks, and intend to do so. Where this is the case, their accommodation costs can be met for 13 weeks (less any period spent on remand during which Housing Benefit was paid). Housing Benefit (along with some other benefits) is being replaced by Universal Credit and the period for which accommodation costs can be met is changing to six months. The new limit applies to people in prison, both those on remand and who have been sentenced.

1.20. In some cases, individuals may be able to transfer their tenancy to another person (usually a family member). Eligibility for this depends on the type of tenancy and other factors such as the presence of rent arrears (Shelter, 2013a). Alternatively, it may be possible to sub-let a tenancy for the period of custody, and eligibility again depends on the type of tenancy and the terms of the tenancy agreement (Shelter, 2013b).

1.21. Where someone sentenced to custody is not entitled to Housing Benefit, and has no other options available to meet their accommodation costs, landlords generally require the tenancy to be surrendered (Shelter, 2015). Where a landlord has reason to believe that a tenant has left their accommodation (or abandoned it) without telling them, they can institute abandonment procedures which, if proven, will result in the tenancy being terminated (Shelter, 2013c). These actions may be taken, for example, to prevent a build-up of arrears, and assist a landlord in their responsibility to make the best use of their housing stock.

1.22. A landlord seeking to end a tenancy for other reasons could use eviction proceedings. This may happen, for example, where people in custody have arrears, or where the nature of their offence has breached the terms of their tenancy. The Housing (Scotland) Act 2010 introduced “pre-action requirements” which social landlords have to follow in these circumstances. These include giving the tenant clear information about their tenancy agreement, exploring eligibility for Housing Benefit, identifying sources of advice and assistance and, potentially, agreeing a payment plan for arrears (Shelter, 2012).

1.23. Individuals leaving custody have the right to apply to the Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF). This is funded by the Scottish Government and operated by local authorities. It gives crisis grants and community care grants to provide a safety net in an emergency, or to enable people to live independently or continue to live independently, avoiding the need for institutional care. The practical effect of this is that individuals leaving custody may be able to obtain funds towards meeting the costs of establishing a tenancy (Scottish Government, 2015c). The Welfare Funds (Scotland) Act 2015 places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide welfare funds, and will come into force in April 2016.

Developments relating to reintegration, and support with housing issues

1.24. The Scottish Government, the SPS and their partners are committed to reducing reoffending, and have put a range of actions in place designed to contribute to this. All of those serving short sentences are eligible for voluntary throughcare[3] support from their local authority social work service.

1.25. An important additional development has been the deployment by the SPS of 41 Throughcare Support Officers (TSOs) who work directly with individuals to help them prepare for, and make a successful transition from custody into the community, and make progress towards desistance. This involves developing an asset-based individualised plan, acting as an advocate on an individual’s behalf and encouraging motivation to change through sustained engagement with key services. TSOs work collaboratively with individuals, families, other prison staff and partner agencies.

1.26. The Scottish Government has provided short and long-term funding to a variety of projects through the Reducing Reoffending Programme Phase 2 (RRP2), and specifically via the Reducing Reoffending Change Fund (RRCF). Six Public Social Partnerships (PSPs) have been set up, three of which work directly with individuals leaving custody (New Routes PSP; Shine PSP; and BAFC[4] Moving On PSP). A further PSP has been established at HMP Low Moss, with funding from the Scottish Government, The Robertson Trust and the Big Lottery.

1.27. The need to access and sustain suitable accommodation is one of the SPS’s nine key “Offender Outcomes” designed to guide its work on housing issues (SPS, 2013). Following the publication of the Organisational Review (SPS, 2013), the SPS is in the process of rolling out a new approach to case management for those serving short sentences, alongside developments to the role of Personal Officers. The SPS has appointed a Policy Manager (Housing and Welfare) to develop and coordinate housing-related work across all prisons in Scotland (including private prisons).

Planned changes in community justice in Scotland

1.28. A new model of community justice for Scotland will be introduced from April 2017 (Scottish Government, 2015f). This will involve local strategic planning and collective delivery of community justice services, and will place duties upon a defined set of community justice partners.

1.29. A new body, Community Justice Scotland (CJS), will be created to provide leadership for the sector and enhance opportunities for innovation, learning and development. CJS will provide quality assurance and improvement support to partners as required, to enable improved outcomes.

1.30. The new arrangements will have a focus upon collaboration, with statutory partners engaging with the third sector, community-based organisations, people with a history of offending, families, victims of crime and communities. There will be a focus on a strategic approach to commissioning, with CJS working with partners and stakeholders to develop this.

1.31. An Outcomes, Performance and Improvement Framework, and a National Strategy for Community Justice, will set the direction and the basis against which planning can be carried out. Priorities for improvement will be set at a local level.

1.32. A period of transition is underway, with transition plans expected from Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) by January 2016 and the first community justice improvement plans from partners being in place from 2017/18. The Community Justice (Scotland) Bill was introduced on 7 May 2015 and provides the required legislative cover for the new model, which will also see the existing Community Justice Authorities (CJAs) disestablished.

Summary of methods

1.33. There were five strands to the research, described in detail in Annexe 1. These were:

1. A Scotland-wide service and practice mapping exercise, by survey.

2. Interviews with 45 people serving, and 29 who had served short sentences.

3. Interviews with 146 key professionals; including from: prisons; Housing Options Hubs; third sector organisations and partnerships; housing associations; social work services; CPPs and CJAs.

4. A review of relevant literature and evidence.

5. Reporting and suggestions for next steps.

The report

1.34. The report is in five chapters with seven annexes. The next three chapters present the research findings, and in the final chapter, the conclusions and next steps, as follows:

  • Housing issues and their impact (Chapter 2).
  • The pattern and nature of services available, and improved outcomes (Chapter 3).
  • Gaps, barriers and suggestions (Chapter 4).
  • Conclusions and next steps (Chapter 5).

1.35. Annexes provide more details of:

1.36. The report uses the term “individuals” to describe those who have served, or are serving short sentences, and “staff” to describe those working with them. The term “participants” is used to describe both individuals and staff. Distinctions are made between different types of housing-related service providers and staff (housing services / staff; prison services / staff; reintegration services / staff; and other specialist services / staff). Further details are given in Annexe 1.

1.37. Cross references to material in the main report use the abbreviation “pgh” and the relevant paragraph number (e.g. pgh 1.1). Cross references to material in an annexe also use the abbreviation “pgh”, but with the relevant annexe and paragraph numbers (e.g. pgh A1:1).


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