University of Cambridge Professor in Criminology and Criminal Justice, Loraine Gelsthorpe, is leading the evaluation of the Re-Unite project. Here she keeps us updated on findings

Loraine Gelsthorpe at the University of Cambridge Institue for CriminologyI have been involved with the Re-Unite project more or less since its inception. I have a keen interest in women and criminal justice research and it has been clear from the beginning that Commonweal and Housing for Women, both partners involved in the creation of the initial pilot project in South London, have placed importance on evaluation as a tool to assess what does and doesn’t work.

We have set out to test the benefits of providing a stable home environment and tailored support to mothers leaving prison, to help reunite them with their children, thereby breaking the cycle of criminality and deprivation. Almost half of all adults leaving prison are reconvicted within a year – and for those serving short sentences, the figure is even higher.

The Government’s Green Paper response to Breaking the Cycle concludes that settled housing is critical to stabilising the chaotic lives of some offenders. Indeed, some 38% of prisoners (Ministry of Justice, 2010a) face problems with finding somewhere to live when they leave prison. Moreover, this figure does not distinguish between men and women, where the latter often find there is a shortage of appropriate housing available – more so than their male counterparts.

The Re-Unite project therefore focuses on the home as the stabilising factor in breaking the cycle of reoffending for mothers. The project places distinct emphasis on the home as not just being accommodation, but where we live, and where we can just be. It is unique in that it provides a holistic approach to service provision, involving a woman and her family. Real thought is given to accommodation needs, including, for example, the proximity to healthcare, shops, and local schools; and Re-Unite ensures that it delivers care with passion rather than just treating it as a support process. All of this is hugely important in delivering the service and helping these women live positive lives.

Early phase results of the pilot held between 2007 and 2009 were very positive. The evaluation found that of the nine women to move on from the project, eight had been successfully reunited with their children. None of the tenants who had moved on from the project had reoffended.

In addition, those tenants who had yet to move on from the project were showing great progress. Seven out of the nine tenants at the time had their children in their care and none of these women had been charged or investigated in respect of committing a crime.

Yet this project is not just seeking a single snapshot of findings. Hence we will continue to carry out research over time and include each of the new projects being rolled out. We want to provide real evidence of the positive impact this project can have on the women and children it supports, as well as provide evidence for future housing providers open to getting involved in delivering the services.

This is a blueprint for the future and it’s exciting that it is up and running elsewhere. Measurement is not easy but we are creating and refining a model and a concept that can be replicated. Indeed, there are now over 40 women’s community centres across the country – all seeking to provide holistic support to women who have got on the wrong side of the law – but few have connections with housing support and so there is much potential for different housing providers to be involved in supporting these women, using the concept of Re-Unite.

The stark reality is that women face difficulties in obtaining suitable housing when leaving prison, and therefore face homelessness and difficulties in re-establishing relationships with their children. By helping women prepare for a move into more permanent housing and supporting women with additional needs, we can make a difference to their lives and the lives of their children.

Generally, women commit fewer offences than men, and less serious offences. It seems to me that we send too many people to prison resulting in increased post prison housing need. Indeed 70% of women (Ministry of Justice 2010b) receive short-term sentences under one year, therefore a good number of women are set to gain from community sentences and community support compared with short-term prison sentences. There is every indication that a problem solving approach as used in the Re-Unite project is more likely to have an effect, so if we can start to access these women – pre, during and post custodial sentences – we can ensure even more positive results for families and wider society.

Spreading the word

Loraine Gelsthorpe recently organised an international conference relating to Women, Crime and Criminal Justice held at the University of Cambridge. “With 180 delegates gathered from all over the world it was important that housing was at the forefront of our thinking,” Gelsthorp reports. “Commonweal Housing was a key presence at the conference. We will be organising a follow up seminar featuring Commonweal and the Re-Unite project in due course in order to emphasise the importance of the stabilising effect of a home for women who have been in prison and separated from their children.”

Resources:

Ministry of Justice (2010a) Breaking the Cycle. Green Paper. Evidence Report

Ministry of Justice (2010b) Statistics on Women and Criminal Justice. Statistics under s. 95 of the Criminal justice Act 1991. London: Ministry of Justice