Care leavers in prison and probation

A summary of evidence about how people in prison and on probation may be affected by a history of being in care as a child and how services can improve outcomes for them.

A care leaver is someone who has spent time in the care of the Local Authority. Eligibility for Local Authority services depends on when and how long someone was in care.

We sometimes also use the term care experienced people.

What do we know?

Transition to adulthood is a difficult time for many young people. It can be especially so for young adults who have been in care. Often they are without emotional, financial and personal support from parents and other family.

Compared to the general population care leavers are:

  • less likely to be in education, employment or training - over a third of 19 year old care leavers are not in education, employment or training1, although, with support, many achieve success in education and training in later life
  • more likely to be attempting to live independently - some are unable to remain in their placements beyond the age of 18. They are therefore likely to experience compressed and accelerated transitions to independence
  • more likely to have a criminal conviction, and may have experienced unnecessary criminalisation. Care leavers are estimated to represent between 24%2 and 27%3 of the adult prison population. This is despite less than 1%4 of under 18s entering local authority care each year.

Young adults in the criminal justice system who are care leavers may need more support to help their transition to adulthood. They may also need help understanding differences between youth and adult justice systems.

How can prison and probation services help improve outcomes for care leavers?

  • identify care leavers and ensure responsible Local Authorities engage in planning processes. Complex legislation can make identification difficult.
  • develop an effective working relationship with the responsible Local Authority
  • effectively co-ordinate wrap around services. These should enable development of reliable and trusting relationships.
  • provide opportunities for reflection and encourage hope and optimism.
  • encourage development of positive social connections
  • help individuals to address some of the potential disadvantages of being a care leaver.
  • enable care leavers to have space to safely share experiences of being in care. For example, carefully facilitated support groups.

HM Prison & Probation Service has a National Care Leaver Champion and there are Care Leaver Leads in individual prisons and divisional leads in the community.

Risk factors linked to adverse family experiences like family conflict, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect are some of the strongest predictors of youth crime. Ministry of Justice Research5 demonstrates an association between contact with the family justice system (public law) and offending, but this does not demonstrate a causal link or relationship:

  • children in contact with the public law system were more likely to offend and commit multiple offences between the ages of 10 and 17, and on average, started offending earlier, than their peers
  • the link between offending and public law may be largely explained by shared risk factors, including family poverty and parental neglect or abuse
  • for children in local authority care, placement type and instability link to higher offending rates. Unnecessary criminalisation of children in care homes may partly explain this
  • children in contact with the public law system in their early teenage years for the first time, are more likely to offend than those who were involved at any other age
  • maltreatment and going into care as a teenager may be more strongly associated with youth offending than maltreatment or care only. Young people’s offending may also be affected by the type and instability of the care placement – but pre-existing issues with offending may influence placement decisions
  • for females in their early teenage years, contact with the public law system links to a greater increase in likelihood of offending, and prolific and violent offending, than for males. However, young males in contact with the public law system have a higher likelihood of offending than females of the same age. International research indicates that experience of out-of-home placement can be more strongly linked to offending for females

What do we know about adverse childhood experiences of adult offenders?

Ministry of Justice research suggests that offenders who have been in care are more likely to be reconvicted within 12 months. Compared with Black & Minority Ethnic (BAME), and longer-sentenced offenders, women, white and short sentenced prisoners were more likely than men to have:

  • been in care
  • experienced abuse and
  • witnessed violence in the home as a child

Further reading

The National Protocol on Reducing Unnecessary Criminalisation of Looked after Children and Care Leavers DfE, Home Office, MoJ (2018)

The Care of Looked After Children in Custody: A short thematic review. HM Inspectorate of Prisons (2011)

Achieving Justice for looked after children and care leavers, Howard League for Penal Reform. Fitzpatrick, C. (2014)

In Care, Out of Trouble (The Laming Review) Prison Reform Trust (2016)

Risk, Adverse Influence and Criminalisation Understanding the over-representation of looked after children in the youth justice system Literature review for the Laming Review. Staines, J. (2016)

Supporting looked after children and care leavers in the Criminal Justice System: Emergent themes and strategies for change. Fitzpatrick, C., Williams, P. & Coyne, D. Prison Service Journal. (July 2016).

A cross-departmental strategy for young people leaving care (2013-14)


  1. Care leavers’ transition to adulthood (National Audit Office/Department for Education 2015)
  2. Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds. Results from the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction (SPCR) longitudinal cohort study of prisoners (Ministry of Justice 2012)
  3. Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners (Social Exclusion Unit (2002)
  4. Harker, R. & Heath, S. (2014) Children in Care in England: Statistics, SN/SG/4470, House of Commons Library
  5. Using family court data to explore links between adverse family experiences and proven youth offending Analytical Summary (Ministry of Justice 2017)

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This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 12 August 2019