Recalls in crisis: What needs to change?

A recall happens when a person is returned to prison following their sentence after having been deemed to have breached their licence conditions.

This blog from Policy Manager Kelly Grehan aims to shed light on the issues surrounding recalls and advocates for a shift towards more effective alternatives, specifically community orders, to break the cycle of crisis and crime.

Yesterday’s Offender Management Statistics are just the latest set of data highlighting the need for a fundamental rethink of how we treat those on license and their relationship with the justice system.

Once seen as a last resort for those not complying with their licences, recall has now become a significant contributory factor in the prison population crisis.  In recent years the recall population has risen dramatically, with a staggering 10,400 people recalled to prison in England and Wales on sentences of less than 12 months in the year leading up to September 2023. The most recent statistics show 7,152 licence recalls between October and December 2023, an increase of 17% compared with the same quarter in 2022.

In fact, the number of people recalled in England and Wales has risen by 85% in the period from 2017 to 2023, and the average time an offender spent in custody following recall increasing by about half. There can be no doubt that recalls take up staff resources across the justice system that could be better used elsewhere.

However, it’s not just a question of resources.

We believe that the whole concept of recalls must be fully reviewed, shifting focus away from punishment for those who have often committed no further crime. Instead, the emphasis for those on probation after release from prison should be on rehabilitation and support within the community – steps which we believe will reduce reoffending, helping to end the cycle of crisis and crime.

Short sharp shocks: fixed-term recalls (FTRs)

One in three people on probation after release from prison are recalled to custody, with a staggering 64.5% of all recalls in 2018 being 14-day fixed-term recalls (recalls for those originally sentenced to less than 12 months).

The brevity of fixed-term recalls means that people lose whatever progress they have made since release, such as finding accommodation, and get little to no rehabilitative support during their time back in custody. This makes people on fixed-term recalls particularly vulnerable to further disengagement, leading to entrapment in crisis-driven cycles of reoffending.

Recalls and the revolving door

Crucially, most recalls do not happen because someone has committed a new offence. Rather, out of all recalls in October-December 2023, only about 26% involved a charge of further offending, whereas 77% involved non-compliance, 34% involved failure to keep in touch, and 26% involved failure to reside – often code for failing to secure an address, and far more symptomatic of the housing crisis than of wilful disobedience.

The human cost of recalls is particularly clear within the revolving door group, where complex, overlapping unmet needs, including drug and alcohol use, mental ill-health and homelessness or housing instability contribute to cycles of repeat, low-level offending.

Recall procedures do not take into account that these factors can also make it more difficult to comply with license conditions, meaning those in this group are more likely to be issued with recalls – in particular short, disruptive fixed-term recalls – for circumstances outside of their immediate control, and because of issues for which they are receiving little to no support.

Punishing and recalling those who have, for example, lost their housing or failed to attend appointments due to a mental health crisis is cruel and counterproductive. It means it is harder for someone to resettle in the community where they can access support.  It compounds the chaos that often characterises the lives of those in the revolving door, condemning them to further suffering and ultimately driving them to re-offend.

Breakdown of trust in an overstretched system

The rise in recalls takes place against a backdrop of a criminal justice system that is struggling to function. An overwhelmed probation service with stretched resources and high staff turnover means that support for those released from custody is often simply not there. 

‘There isn’t respect for people coming into their appointments. When people are late there is no understanding, people do not get a chance to explain what is going on or why they are late. There is no relationship, so people don’t feel heard.’

‘They are breaching you for being late, you know. That’s not what you want, you want to make progress, and you want to see what you can get out of it.’

‘My probation had a breach letter pre-written, they were just waiting for me to turn up late.’

– Lived experience members, Revolving Doors’ Probation Inquiry

One specific but pressing example of this disengagement is the erosion of trust between people on probation and their probation officer. 

Probation officers hold complicated roles: they are rightly expected to build a working relationship with the people they support, whilst also being the person ultimately responsible for activating a recall. This understandably complicates the relationship.

Our Probation Inquiry highlighted many people’s concerns that individual probation officers had too much power to take life-changing action against them such as breach proceedings and threatening to recall them back to prison.

Whilst people understood that probation has a role to protect the public, the fear of being breached or recalled back to prison – often for what felt like minor infringements such as being slightly late for an appointment due to circumstances out of their control – significantly reduced their willingness to openly discuss any issues they faced, and the ways that probation could support them to manage these, including drug use, poor mental health, and even being a victim of crime or abuse.

‘If you’re having issues with drugs and alcohol and stuff, and you mention something that relates to your risk, then they’re just gonna recall you. It’s a very counter-productive thing, you have to be very, very careful what you say to them.’

– Lived experience member, the Probation Inquiry

From my own 20 years as a probation officer, I know how deeply conflicted I felt about having to recall people I knew were trying to navigate deeply difficult circumstances, many of whom will have felt betrayed as a result.

However, the blame culture that surrounds Probation when something goes wrong has led to a risk averse culture, worried about repercussions if the person breached is not recalled, probation officers pursue inappropriate recalls. We believe that the appropriateness of probation officers being responsible for recalls therefore needs further consideration.

What needs to change?

Revolving Doors believes we need a comprehensive re-evaluation of our approach to recalls, emphasising long-term solutions over short-term fixes.

It is time to explore alternative measures, reviewing the proportionality of so many people being returned to custody when there is no suggestion they have committed new offences.  

We believe recalls should be used only in exceptional circumstances where there is an unacceptable risk to public safety, after exhausting all possible alternatives, particularly when a sentence was under 12 months to begin with.

Disengagement, especially in the context of situations such as loss of housing, points to the need for extra support, not punishment.  We must face the fact that people leaving prison require this support.

Our members advocate strongly for solutions that help people to succeed in the long term. These include peer mentoring, housing, wrap-around support and, in some cases, hand holding to access services in order that they can succeed in the long term.

To re-build trust in the Probation Service, we recommend that review panels should be more widely used, particularly where the risk of harm to the public is assessed as low and the breach being considered is due to a minor issue of non-compliance. 

With the prison overcrowding crisis showing no sign of improving, the government should end the double punishment of recalls when no new offences have been committed by seize the opportunity to rethink recall policy in a way that will benefit society and the justice system in the long term.