Transforming Rehabilitation: and the procession passed on…

Mary Corcoran
Monday, 18 August 2014

Two events coincided at the end of May 2014 that illuminate the contrary directions in thinking about the future of our economy.  The first was the conference on Inclusive Capitalism, convened in London to ponder how markets could be rebalanced towards citizens and workers.  The second was the dissolution of the public Probation Service.  It is succeeded by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) which, according to the shortlist of approved bidders, comprise consortia of security corporations in partnership with large charities and social enterprises.  These CRCs will take over three quarters of work with offenders in the community, leaving a much reduced, new National Probation Service to maintain responsibility for ‘high-risk’ offenders.   Without stretching coincidence to a point of conspiracy, their concurrence makes a striking contrast between those who wish to shepherd the global economy, post crisis, towards stability and fairness, and those for whom the remedy to the inequities brought about by decades of free market policies is even more market liberalism.

Since the 1990s, relationships between governments, capital and civil society have been structurally transforming, bringing far-reaching changes.  This shift is exemplified by the rise of a mixed market in the criminal justice sector, where commercial companies, and latterly  charities, are contracted to augment state services (as in the case of privately-managed prisons and detention centres), service existing institutions (prisoner transport or tagging, community-based supervision, for example), or even replace them (as with the Probation Service).

The market revolution in criminal justice has been rendered more contentious by successive phases of privatisation, outsourcing, and deregulation. The lure of market solutions has gained currency among centre-right and centre-left governments (with some marginal differences) in the UK and elsewhere in pursuit of the elusive alchemy of greater efficiency, cheaper costs and better services.

Undoubtedly, too, greater competitive openness and cultural transformation have been championed by proponents of public sector reform with a view to disciplining  ‘vested interests’, although in practice these ‘vested interests’ have been exclusively those belonging to the public sector and workers rather than financial or commercial capital. Indeed, Julian Le Grand, New Labour’s guru on public sector modernisation, proclaimed that privatisation is quintessentially democratic because it hands consumer  power back to citizens and providers.

By contrast, critics have equated the elevation of market forces with an attack on collective welfare, the transfer of public resources to private pockets, and the erosion of a public sector ethos or altruistic values. Market distribution systems have historically failed to meet significant areas of human need where there is no obvious opportunity to acquire profits or capital. As such, public services evolved because of market failure.

Since 2007, the fiscal crisis and austerity have provided opportunities for transferring state penal assets and powers to private interests on an unprecedented scale.  A series of scandals relating to fraud and mismanagement by private companies have revealed regulatory gaps and wilful oversight on the part of legislators. It has taken successive governments decades to drive through the endorsement of private profit as a key component of criminal justice against considerable opposition, not only from the labour movement or sections of the political left, but academics, public administrators, lawyers and professionals. The case for privatising the probation service has been widely discredited and it is apparent that the motives for pursuing it lie elsewhere.  The fate of the probation system in England and Wales is determined by the political will to outpace the electoral clock by putting much of it into private domains before the next election.  To quote from the classic tale of vainglorious rulers:

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, ‘This procession has got to go on’.

So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all.

(Hans Christian Anderson, The Emperor’s New Clothes)

Mary Corcoran is Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Keele University.  A longer version of this article is published in the September edition of Criminal Justice Matters, on Criminal justice marketisation.

The September issue of Criminal Justice Matters is online now. Members will receive copies of the magazine early next month.