Over the past months, a private members’ Bill has been making its way through Parliament, without a great deal of media coverage. The name of the draft law, the Offenders (Day of Release from Detention) Bill, does not do much to communicate its significance. In fact, on reading it, you would be forgiven for thinking this is not much more than an administrative statute – a tidying up provision to correct one of the many obscurities of the legal system.
But its impact could be very significant for many prisoners, including youth offenders, and has the potential to positively impact reoffending rates.
The law as it now stands mandates that offenders due to be released on a Saturday, Sunday or public holiday must be released on the preceding Friday, providing it is a working day. The Bill, which passed through the House of Commons without amendment and is now awaiting its second reading in the Lords, would change this by giving the Secretary of State discretionary power to bring forward the release date of an offender by up to two eligible working days where that release date falls on a Friday or the day before a bank holiday. In practice, this power would likely be delegated to prison governors.
Since 2018, the charity NACRO, along with a number of other stakeholders, has campaigned for an end to Friday releases, and that cause was taken up by Simon Fell MP who tabled the Bill in early summer 2022. Fell’s speech during the Bill’s second reading (which is worth reading in full) outlines the problem which the Bill is trying to solve.
“Many people released from prison, especially those released on Fridays, are almost set up to fail from the moment they set foot outside the prison estate,” he said. “They face a race against time to access statutory and non-statutory services—to meet their probation officer; visit a pharmacy or a GP; sort out their accommodation—all on a Friday, with services closing early, and with some being a distance away or even impossible to reach by public transport. Many of them therefore end up homeless, with no hope of accessing services until Monday morning at the earliest. So they have nowhere to stay, they have little support and the world is on their shoulders. Is it any surprise that up to two thirds of people released without access to accommodation reoffend within a year?”
The impact on youths of Friday releases was also highlighted by Fell in the Commons. “For under-18s, a Friday release may mean a child going for two or even three days without meaningful contact with support services when they are at their most vulnerable. That is why the Bill applies to both adults and children sentenced to detention and will ensure the same provisions exist across the youth estate,” he said.
The Bill is a good example of the application of nudge theory: making a seemingly small change to influence wider behaviour or produce much greater effects. Once law, the Bill has the potential to bring about welcome change, and benefit many individuals caught up in the criminal justice system.
However, the law is reactive and, in some ways, acts as a mere sticking plaster. It is a corrective measure which is needed only because of deficiencies which have developed in the system over many years.
In 2018, the government introduced the Offender Management in Custody (OMiC) service, with the aim of improving the support offered to those leaving prison and being reintegrated into society. However, a joint inspection report of OMiC published in November 2022 found numerous problems across the service, including that it was too complex and inflexible with a lack of understanding and implementation, and ineffective communication. The report made 16 recommendations for reform of the system.
Another point not mentioned during the House of Commons debate was the wind down in recent years in the usage of open prisons as part of the rehabilitation which should be taking place throughout an offender’s overall detention period.
In the past, under their rehabilitation plan, a male offender spending five or six years in prison for a serious offence might have expected (following scheduled assessments by prison staff) to be moved from a Category A prison, to a Category C institution (a ‘training and resettlement’ prison) – possibly via Category B – and then to spend his last few months in Category D (an ‘open prison’) before release. Spending time in an open prison would allow him to spend time in the community, in education or work, and to prepare for full release.
However, open prisons have become less accessible since June 2022 when a new three-step test was introduced for all indeterminate sentence offenders. They must now ‘demonstrably prove’ they are highly unlikely to abscond; that the move is essential for them to work towards future release; and the move would not undermine public confidence in the wider criminal justice system. According to the OMiC inspection report, the lower usage of open prisons was also exacerbated by Covid-19 restrictions as well as high caseloads for prison offender managers, which led to “some individuals not progressing to an open prison in a timely manner”.
In theory, most prisoners should spend the last few months of their sentence in a prison near where they plan to live after release. But pressures on the prison estate means this is not always possible. In addition, the custodial period served for certain sentences has been increased by way of changes to the automatic early release system, meaning prisoners are staying in custody for longer, making readjustment harder.
There are clearly many inter-connecting issues to be dealt with across the prison system (not to mention the criminal justice system as a whole). Solving these issues will require real political courage and determination, at a significantly greater level than we have seen to date.