A new briefing published by the Prison Reform Trust today (23 April 2021) says that the Home Detention Curfew (HDC) scheme is an effective tool for easing the transition from custody to the community as well as managing existing and future prison population pressures. However, the charity argues that its use is being hampered by overly restrictive eligibility criteria and inefficient systems.
Existing eligibility criteria include limiting its use to those serving sentences of less than four years and rigid exclusions based on previous breaches or recalls and offence history. These criteria are disproportionate and exclude large categories of prisoners who could potentially benefit from the scheme, the briefing says.
Even within existing criteria, uptake of HDC could be further improved through better use of technology, improved provision of accommodation and addressing disproportionate outcomes for different protected characteristics.
The HDC scheme was introduced over two decades ago in 1999. The scheme enables eligible prisoners to serve the final 135 days of their custodial term in the community subject to electronic monitoring. The aim of the scheme is to assist the transition from custody to the community and ease population pressures on the prison estate.
Less than two years ago, the government introduced measures to expand the eligibility criteria for HDC. In July 2019, the previous Conservative government bought forward secondary legislation to increase the maximum length of the period which prisoners could spend on HDC in the community from 135 days to 180 days. In the impact assessment of the proposals, the Ministry of Justice identified the following benefits to expanding the eligibility criteria:
“Earlier resettlement will limit the harmful effects of custody and have a positive impact for offenders and their families; for example, earlier re-employment will allow them to support themselves and their families earlier in their sentence. Reducing the prison population will contribute to improving the conditions for both offenders and staff and enable prisoners to feel safer, calmer and readier to engage in their rehabilitation”.
However, in May 2020, the current Conservative government withdrew the legislation. This is despite the positive benefits identified in the impact assessment of the proposals of improved resettlement outcomes and better treatment and conditions in prison.
The impact assessment of the 2019 proposals stated that “the original policy intention [of the HDC scheme was] that most offenders eligible for the scheme should be released.” However, the data shows that this is not currently happening, with just 35% of eligible prisoners granted HDC in 2019.
With chronic levels of overcrowding on the prison estate and a prison population expected to rise in the coming years, it is crucial that the prison service has effective measures in place to relieve both existing and future population pressures. The latest government prison population projections predict that numbers in custody will rise by around 20,000 from current levels to 98,700 by September 2026.
The low recall rates for HDC suggests that the scheme is relatively successful in meeting its primary aim of supporting a successful transition from custody to community with the use of tagging technology, as well as easing the pressure on overcrowded prisons. The briefing makes recommendations for changing the eligibility criteria for HDC to make its benefits available to a larger number of prisoners. It also recommends ways in which the purpose and efficiency of HDC could be further improved within the existing policy.
The briefing makes ten recommendations urging the Government to extend the use of the HCC scheme. Specifically it recommends that the Government should:
- Extend the eligibility criteria to prisoners sentenced to four years and above
- Extend the period an individual may spend on HDC in the community to 180 days
- Revise exclusions based on previous breaches and recalls in line with ROTL policy
- Revise offence-based exclusions, particularly non-statutory presumptions
- Remove the presumption against HDC being granted to foreign national prisoners
- Support use of GPS technology to increase uptake of HDC, particularly to prisoners deemed unsuitable
- Ensure BASS services are audited to check that they are operating effectively. If necessary, the government should be prepared to invest in expanding bed spaces in the BASS services to provide sufficient capacity for people on HDC.
- Extend the emergency accommodation support package, as well as publishing statistics on its performance so its impact can be independently assessed.
- Under the principle of explain or reform, investigate disproportionate outcomes in release rates on HDC for different ethnic groups.
- Collect and publish data on acceptance and refusal rates for all groups with protected characteristics.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.