Probation, People and Profits: The Impact of Neoliberalism

Published 15/03/2016
Type Article
Author(s) Michael Teague
Corresponding Authors Michael Teague, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Derby

A former probation chief, writing in 2013, targeted the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government’s ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ (Conservative Party, 2008) with withering scorn. It was, he wrote, nothing more than a ‘rehashed search for the holy grail of credible community sentences based on even more punishment delivered within an incomprehensible and fragmented framework of privatised provision in order to deliver rehabilitation’ (Collett, 2013:175). Collett was making a fundamental point about the erosion of probation’s original reintegrative ethos by rampant neoliberal policies, and the formation of a systematically marketised environment. There can now be little doubt that a momentous cultural shift is being engendered as probation is propelled swiftly down the road of privatisation. The pace of change is fast. While this is a partial privatisation (those assessed as posing the highest risk remain subject to public sector supervision), the eventual endgame of neoliberal political philosophy may be total privatisation. When ideology and neoliberal logic dictate that probation can be reduced to a commodity that can be bought and sold, why then should the government halt at an arbitrary point where probation is only 70 per cent privatised? Regardless of the rehabilitative rhetoric, the reality may be that the privatisation of probation is about the deprioritisation of rehabilitation and penal-welfare intervention.

Neoliberalism is not just a political and economic philosophy (Harvey, 2007), but also an entrenched ideological framework, embedded and institutionalised within our justice and penal systems (Reiner, 2007). The ideological nostrums which buttress this framework have inevitably been reproduced in the transformation in probation over the last three decades. Bell (2011) provides a meticulous account of the political economy of neoliberalism and the dynamics of neoliberal governance and the justice system. Neoliberal governments assiduously support privatisation (Mercille & Murphy, 2015), not least because it promotes the power of business interests in the economy. Privatisation demands that those sectors previously operated by the state are unchained from state regulation and pass to the private sector’s operational control (Whitehead & Crawshaw, 2012). Under neoliberalism, everything is viewed as a commodity. The growing recourse to privatisation can be theorised using the concept of ‘accumulation by dispossession’, which includes the ‘commodification of assets outside the market’ (Mercille & Murphy, 2015:90).

Probation may have survived for over a century outside the market, sustained by exceptionally dedicated and creative practitioners. However, neoliberal ideology dictates that markets provide the definitive guidance for decision-making in every sphere of human endeavour, including the optimum allocation of resources. Perennial claims are advanced by advocates of neoliberalism for increasing efficiency, enhancing quality and effectiveness, cutting bureaucratic red tape, and saving public money; all of these arguments have been relentlessly rehearsed to reinforce the imperative to ‘reform’ probation. As Harvey (2007:165) argued, ‘Commodification presumes the existence of property rights over processes, things, and social relations, that a price can be put on them, and that they can be traded subject to legal contract.’ This is precisely what has occurred within probation, just as it has in other public institutions (including prisons). Every practitioner understands that intervention with those who may pose a significant risk to society is challenging and demands high levels of interpersonal skills, yet probation has been transformed from ‘a people-orientated service into one of commodities and products that can be competed for in the market-place’ (Whitehead, 2010:89). The commodification of rehabilitative intervention is fully underway.

The practice of rehabilitation (and punishment) has been impacted by the conditions created and fostered by neoliberal policies and their cultural underpinnings. These include the marketisation of society, notions of individual responsibility for behaviour, poverty, inequality, and discrimination in terms of race and ethnicity (Goldberg, 2009). All of these have clear implications for probation practice. Neoliberal culture, which typically depicts individual offenders as ultimately personally culpable for their offending, rather than understanding offending as related to neoliberal social and economic structures – may be linked with a tendency to punish. Reiner (2007a; 2007b) has argued that neoliberal economies are associated with higher levels of serious offending than may be found in social democratic economies, and that crime may be an inevitable outcome of neoliberal political structures. In a culture which is propelled by consumption, places a strong value on competitive individualism, and is riven by widening inequality, crime is able to flourish (Hall, Winlow & Ancrum, 2008). Neoliberalism may also be associated with increased offending, higher levels of violence, and even murder (Hall & McLean, 2009).

Wacquant (2009) contends that neoliberalism’s predominance has been paralleled by a shift towards greater punitiveness, in order to ensure the maintenance of social order. He observed that in American prisons, ‘the therapeutic philosophy of “rehabilitation” has been more or less supplanted by a managerialist approach… paving the way for the privatisation of correctional services’ (2009:2-3). This process has been replicated in the transformation of probation in England and Wales (Teague, 2012a). What had been, in essence, an organisation engaged in social welfarist intervention was metamorphosing into a more punitive, target-driven agency, propelled by the twin imperatives of enforcement and compliance. Robinson and Ugwudike (2012:301) noted that prior to the 1990s, enforcement ‘was neither a key, nor a consistent, aspect of practice’. This has now changed, perhaps irreversibly. Neoliberal culture has permeated probation.

The shift in probation’s professional ethos (Canton, 2011; Mair & Burke, 2012; Senior, Crowther-Dowey & Long, 2008; Whitehead & Statham, 2006) has been paralleled by the advent of neoliberal governance since 1979. Probation has – like other public sector agencies – experienced the impact of a radical transformation in the overarching ethos of public provision. Support for privatised intervention has crossed the continuum of party affiliations; Conservative, Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition governments have supported public sector reforms rooted in free market principles (for example, Blair 2010; Conservative Party 2010). In their typology of economies and their penal tendencies, Cavadino and Dignan (2005:15) cited England and Wales as archetypal neoliberal economies. For most of the twentieth century, the public provision of justice and penal services was universally accepted throughout Western Europe. However, privatisation within the UK justice system gained a significant profile when privatised imprisonment was introduced in the early 1990s (Teague, 2012b).

A decade later, the Carter Report endorsed private profit as a key component of public sector provision, citing a classic neoliberal justification for change: ‘Effectiveness and value for money can be further improved through greater use of competition from private and voluntary providers’ (Carter, 2004:5). The seismic shift to private provision within probation was presaged by a Conservative party policy statement asserting that ‘The old monopolies in the prison and probation system need to be opened up to create a far more diverse range of suppliers of criminal justice services’ (Conservative Party, 2008:49). When the then probation and prisons minister, Crispin Blunt, addressed frontline practitioners at the 2010 Napo conference, he assured them that he was a pragmatist, unconstrained by ideology. His audience was demonstrably unimpressed to learn that, in practice, this meant outsourcing much of their work to private companies (Blunt, 2010). It hardly needs stating the imposition of privatisation was not an initiative propelled by grass roots practitioners. Nor were the changes to probation evidence based. As Oldfield (2002:93) had bluntly concluded, ‘late modern transformations in probation can be seen as the result of political rather than epistemological influence’.

However, the most radical alteration to probation’s public sector identity came in 2013, with the Coalition Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) programme (Ministry of Justice, 2013). TR outlined policies so controversial and contested that the British Journal of Community Justice devoted an unprecedented double issue of painstaking analysis to them (2013: Volume 11(2-3)). These debates need no further rehearsal here, but there can be little doubt about the profound impact of the changes imposed by TR. The Coalition government’s stance on probation was unambiguous; they offered the classic neoliberal analysis that it was essential to ‘free up funding through increased efficiency and new ways of working’ (Ministry of Justice, 2013:3). This was to be achieved by a combination of the private, voluntary and public sectors.

Competition for running probation is an inevitable part of the deregulation and marketisation of the justice system. The state’s function under neoliberalism is simple: to nurture and develop an institutional structure which supports private profit and the free market. If there are no existing markets in a particular sphere, then they must simply be created, even if this should necessitate direct state action. To this end, the Ministry of Justice shortlisted 30 bidders (including large multi-national companies) to deliver probation intervention. A total of eight providers were eventually selected. This was followed by the creation of 21 new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). Private sector led partnerships controlled 20 out of these 21 CRCs (one is run by a probation ‘mutual’). Sodexo Justice Services, which already profitably operates prisons, was awarded six of the 21 CRCs in partnership with Nacro, while Interserve (as part of the Purple Futures partnership) bid successfully in five CRCs. This means that just two multi-national companies were chosen by government to operate over half of all the CRCs in England and Wales (11 out of 21 CRCs). Though the CRCs were initially publicly owned, they were transferred from public to private ownership in February 2015. In June 2014, the public sector new National Probation Service became responsible for the management of high risk offenders, but the majority of probation service users in England and Wales (around 70 per cent) are now supervised by CRCs. This much is a matter of public record. Practitioners will scrutinise and debate the effectiveness of the changes, and it is right that they should do so. However, it is also essential is to consider the broader economic, political and ideological context which has determined the mechanics of these changes.
Burke and Collett (2010:244) observed that probation practice, engaging with individuals, ‘developing their personal capacity and enhancing their social capital… is ultimately a human and moral enterprise’. It is not primarily concerned with private profit. The inexorable focus upon the centrality of the market and an ‘offender management system that harnesses the innovation of the private and voluntary sectors’ (Ministry of Justice, 2010) reflects an ingrained, ideologically dogmatic support of privatisation (Senior, 2013). The changes in probation can be viewed as part of the continuing transformation of our justice system into a competitive market place, in which the attainment of financial return takes precedence over social justice and the wider social good. As McNeill (2013:85) cogently but vainly noted in the wake of TR, ‘Doing justice is not a task that we should contract out because it is a civic duty that citizens owe to one another.’

Harvey’s (2007) definitive analysis of neoliberalism and its drive to marketise social assets provides us with a framework for understanding the advent of CRCs and Payment by Results (Hedderman, 2013) within probation. The privatisation of public assets has a single, overarching aim, namely ‘to open up new fields for capital accumulation in domains hitherto regarded off-limits to the calculus of profitability’ (Harvey, 2007:160). Probation, as a ‘human and moral enterprise’, was formerly viewed as outside the ‘calculus of profitability’. Not any more. It may have survived, and even flourished, for over a century as it embraced the rehabilitative ideal, but in the new neoliberal world, it simply represents an industry worth at least £820m a year (Warrell, 2012).


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