By Miranda Shanks, 2 May 2023

The writer is manager of policy and communications at Catch22

On being released from custody, many former prisoners are faced with a world vastly different from the one they left behind. If the numbers were smaller, this might not be such a problem. Alas. 

Each year in the UK over 40,000 people are released – on license – from prison into the community. That is, for the rest of their sentence the individual must stick to certain conditions, with time spent ‘on license’ supervised by the probation service. Sounds simple enough.

However, out in the world, the released person will often be navigating a complex maze of license conditions while trying to access support services that aren’t always that accessible. All of this while the individual is getting on with everyday life and taking the crucial steps needed to repair the relationships that are vital to ensure lasting rehabilitation is possible. 

Again, it’s worth highlighting the scale of the issue, keeping in mind that a significant majority of those leaving custody will encounter the criminal justice system again. 

Between April 2019 and March 2020, 27,025 people on probation were recalled to prison. In over 70 per cent of these cases, non-compliance with license conditions was one of the reasons the person went back into custody. The person on probation would have broken one or more of the conditions, such as not attending a meeting with a probation officer. 

Of all these recalls back into prison, 37 per cent, or around 10,000 cases, were fixed term recalls – known as FTRs. That is, being sent back to prison for a fixed period of time – either 14 or 28 days. After this, the offender is released automatically to continue serving the sentence on license. 

FTRs, in use since July 2008, are a measure intended to be used by His Majesty's Prison and Probation Service for lower-risk offenders in cases where a contravention of license conditions is not deemed to indicate the public is at risk.

Given the large number of people on probation – a population known as PoPs in the sector – that are being recalled for reasons of non-compliance, rather than because they’ve committed another offence, the questions must be asked: Is there a more proactive and preventative approach that will better support these individuals while they are trying to re-engage with the world? Is there a better way to help them to comply?

These questions, surely, answer themselves. But like anything, it’s the how. And, yes, the devil is in the detail. 

When the risk can be managed in the community, how do we support PoPs to meet their license conditions while maintaining good levels of contact with their probation officer? If better ways aren’t found and put into practice, the default will remain in place – and that sounds a lot like more cell doors slamming shut. And with that clank, another human being will often lose their chance of turning their life around. 

Put simply, FTRs can contribute to a revolving door of individuals in custody. FTRs lack any real focus on rehabilitation and more often than not fail to address the root causes of why people don’t comply with their conditions of release. 

Moreover, FTRs can contribute to the breakdown in relationships between the person on probation and their probation officer. When this relationship goes sour, it’s a long road back.  

All said, this leads to a situation where it’s likely that crime will increase – coupled with all the financial and human costs linked to this. And this is before we discuss the puzzle of overcrowding in UK prisons.

FTRs are a ‘one size fits all’ approach, when many people – and especially those who get short sentences – need targeted and intensive rehabilitative interventions that support them in complying with their license conditions and encourage them to live a healthy and productive life. 

Beyond the human cost, holding someone in custody comes with a serious financial burden. In other words, FTRs are becoming a significant strain on the taxpayer. 

Catch22’s approach

At Catch22, where I work, we are a social business. That is, we are a not-for-profit with a social mission. We agree with the Ministry of Justice that the aim of the criminal justice system is twofold. It exists to protect the public – and to support those who come into contact with it to ultimately lead purposeful, productive lives. 

This is why Catch22 have been running the Achieving Compliance and Engagement (ACE), a pilot programme that offers a rehabilitative alternative to FTRs. 

Catch22 are calling for more support for programmes like ACE, a pilot scheme that supports people on probation

The programme provides intensive and individually tailored support that encourages participants to build and restore pro-social relationships in their communities. Our ACE mentors work with a manageable caseload of 5 to 10 people on probation at any one time. They engage with them in meaningful interactions that are relevant to their needs and interests to help them meet their compliance conditions and to set the former prisoner on the right path. 

Because we work with those who have previously been recalled for not complying, or with those who are displaying certain risks, ACE exists primarily reduce the need for FTRs. 

We know this model works. As of 4 January 2023, only 6 per cent of people on probation who are supported by the ACE programme had been taken back in custody. This is a big reduction in what would have been the case had they not been in the programme. 

As one participant of the programme put it: “If I’m being honest, without ACE I would have reoffended.” 

But, the ACE programme is a pilot. It’s limited in time and scope. It has now come to an end – effectively leaving hundreds of people on probation at risk of falling into a fixed term recall. They will be left without the support that we know works. 

We are calling for the government to prioritise the use of rehabilitative alternatives to FTRs and to allocate the funds needed to roll out more programmes like ACE. If done well, this will mean more people will have a better chance of living healthier and more purposeful lives, well away from the criminal justice system.

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SBT has been supporting Catch22 since 2020