Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Bail houses spring up in suburbs

Electronic tag
Bail accommodation often houses prisoners released with electronic tags

Sending alleged criminals to live in "bail houses" in residential areas has led to an outcry among many people who live near them. BBC News examines the role of these homes.

To those charged with keeping a lid on Britain's growing prison population, they are a common-sense method of coping with defendants going through the courts, and with inmates who have been released from prison.

However, for many of those who live near them, the bail homes - unsupervised and without formal planning approval - threaten to create a haven for drug addicts and become a magnet for crime.

Petitions are frequently started by neighbours fearful of burglars, predatory paedophiles or violent thugs.

However, the government maintains that much misinformation surrounds the homes and that they never house high-risk offenders.

Those who cannot be sent to bail houses include anyone convicted or accused of sexual offences, murder, arson, causing death by dangerous driving, weapons offences, cruelty to children or racially-aggravated crimes.

Where there is the prospect of individuals with criminal records being placed in residential areas, people are entitled to know about it
Dominic Grieve

The government says it was simply responding to demand from the judiciary when it began setting up the network of bail homes in 2007.

Private firm ClearSprings now runs 166 homes, with room for 613 people.

They are ordinary two-to-five-bedroom houses in residential areas and, unlike traditional bail hostels, they have no on-site supervision.

However, the Tories say the developments are a crude - and expensive - method of tackling prison overcrowding, with the costs averaging 250 per person per night, compared to 100 in prison.

Justice spokesman Dominic Grieve said there would always be a need for bail hostels but favours the traditional model, with permanent supervision.

"These are not really bail hostels, they are places for people to be sent on early release," he said, referring to the government's controversial policy of releasing people early from prison sentences to ease overcrowding.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman acknowledged the pressures on the prison system but said early release prisoners made up a minority in ClearSprings accommodation.

"These are people who would be bailed into the community but who, for whatever reason, don't have a home to go to," he said.

"If someone doesn't need to be in prison, it's important they maintain links with their family and the community and keep their jobs."

'Lack of consultation'

Many of those sent to bail houses have no fixed address. In other cases, magistrates impose conditions on their release preventing them from returning home.

For example, in a domestic violence case, a husband might be banned from living in the house he shared with his wife.

And, as the government points out, many of those who stay in bail houses have not been convicted of any crime.

But it is the fact that bail houses by-pass the usual planning system that has provoked most anger because it leaves residents with no direct right to object.

"That there is a lack of consultation is simply wrong," said Mr Grieve.

"It doesn't mean that people should have a veto but where there is the prospect of individuals with criminal records being place in residential areas, people are entitled to know about it and to make their feelings known."

The Ministry of Justice said ClearSprings was obliged to inform councils when it intends to open a centre and invite them to comment.

It also writes to people in the area to tell them about the development and provides a number to call should problems arise, but the company does not have to go through any formal planning process.

Leafy suburb

The government says that because they are ordinary homes on the private market, ClearSprings needs to act quickly - unburdened by the planning process - to secure properties before they are sold or rented out.

That argument does not sit well with residents of Oxford Road in Middlesbrough's leafy Linthorpe suburb, who organised a 100-name petition after finding out a three-bedroom home on the street was to be used as bail accommodation.

Their campaign failed and despite promises that the building would only house low-risk women offenders, it has not been without its problems.

"It's bringing the wrong people into the area," said one 72-year-old.

"They're usually drug addicts and there's a bloke who hangs around the house who's as drunk as a lord at all hours," he said.

"There's always police around here now and we never used to have problems before."

But while it is unlikely that anyone would welcome a bail house in their neighbourhood, what rankles most with him is that he and his neighbours had no say in the matter.

"It's so frustrating that we had no right to object. It's decided and we just have to put up with it," he said.

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