A new (9 September 2015) report from the Prison Reform Trust and POPS (Partners of Prisoners and Families Support Group) finds that families play a key role supporting vulnerable people through the criminal justice system but are often let down by a lack of effective support and accessible information with too many facing high levels of social stigma and isolation.
The study heard from family members, including parents, grand-parents, siblings and partners of young people and adults with particular needs such as mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism in contact with criminal justice services.
- 20-30% of people in prison are estimated to have a learning disability or difficulty that interferes with their ability to cope with the criminal justice system.
- 26% of women and 16% of men said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody.
A recent Joint Inspection report found that all the criminal justice agencies still provide a poor service to people with learning disabilities. And although efforts to divert people with mental health problems have increased markedly since the Bradley Report, there still remains very much to be done as Lord Bradley makes clear in his foreword to this report.
30 family members were interviewed for this report either in focus groups or individually. They gave, often harrowing, accounts of years spent supporting their loved ones and desperately trying to access treatment.
Family members talked about the stigma, isolation and feelings of shame and guilt they experienced. Many spoke of being made to feel like a “criminal by association”, often fighting unpleasantness and sometimes abuse both from members of the local community and from criminal justice personnel.
There was a big difference for family members who had been in contact with liaison and diversion services who spoke warmly about the support that they and their relative received.
Critically, liaison and diversion workers were able to help vulnerable offenders and their families access treatment and support services. Without that help, families said it very difficult indeed to even identify any form of help.
My son had problems before he got involved with the police and I tried to get help through the school and doctors. You should have somewhere to go before they get in trouble. If we’d had access to [youth liaison and diversion] before it came to the arrest, it might all have been stopped before it started. But now he’s got a record. There are so many different people and you don’t know who to go to, who can help – and they don’t help.
The role of families
The role of families in reducing their relatives’ reoffending is well-established in the research literature. By supporting their relatives through an often long and difficult process, family members spoke in the report of how they could be an important resource for justice agencies – provided they themselves had access to appropriate support.
We need more support ourselves, and then we’ll be more able to support them [their relative]. We need to be asked about our strengths, what resilience we have, what strengths we have. We focus an awful lot on them, but maybe we need a focus as well – what can you build on that’s positive?
This is a timely report that reminds us all how much families are neglected in the criminal justice system. Unlike many other countries, probation, and even youth justice, services tend to focus on the individual offender and often view interested family members as a necessary evil rather than affected others with an important role to contribute themselves.