Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Probation for Profit

Once again I'm grateful to Mike Guilfoyle for steering me in the direction of a recent article on the New Left Project website. Written by Michael Teague of the Social Futures Institute at Teeside University and entitled The Dismantling of Probation : Who will Profit? the article convincingly makes the point that it's all about big business making money rather than rehabilitation.

A former probation officer and now researcher and lecturer, Michael Teague is yet another well-informed academic able to authoritatively pour scorn on the government's plans and highlight where this direction of travel will inevitably take us, namely to the American model where increasingly those subject to probation supervision have to pay for it themselves.

This is a topic I've been meaning to get around to for some time, but haven't. Can you imagine how helpful it is for the rehabilitative process if you not only have to find money for food and shelter, but also to pay your probation officer too? In many cases it can't be done of course and leads to imprisonment for non-payment:- 

"Do we really want to travel the American road of privatised probation?  The evidence from the USA suggests that introducing the profit motive into community justice does not enhance the rehabilitative process.  Charging ‘user fees’ is widespread within American ‘community corrections’, with some agencies raising over half their operational budget from such charges.  Individual supervisees may pay fees of up to $100 per month.  In those US states where the rates of incarceration are highest, most people on probation pay for their own supervision.  People on probation in America typically have lifestyles characterised by poverty and chaotic personal circumstances, which may render finding the fees additionally problematic.  The financial pressure to raise money for fees can, in turn, lead to further offending.  They may end up penalised by the justice system, not because they are in breach of their rehabilitative goals, but rather because they are too impoverished to fund their own probation supervision.  Federal law then excludes those in breach of the conditions of supervision from a range of social security benefits, thereby compounding the problem.

In addition, the ethos of fee-dependent private probation may create a professional culture which deprioritises rehabilitation at the expense of the service’s financial solvency, not to mention promoting overtly punitive money fee collection practices.  While we are not yet at the stage of contemplating fees for probation supervision in England and Wales, the American experience represents a cautionary tale for our current direction of travel."

In considering who will profit from privatisation, the article is clear:-

"Probation may have a substantial history of embracing the rehabilitative ideal, but private companies focused on shareholder profit are not oblivious to the fact that, in England and Wales, it represents an industry worth some £820 million a year (the total budget allocated to the existing 35 probation trusts each year).  The potentially lucrative contracts for probation work will be worth a substantial proportion of that total.  The financial resources required to back successful bids will inevitably bestow a significant advantage on those bigger private companies with the resources and infrastructure to support their bid.  This means that that large multinational companies like Serco, Sodexo and G4S – already enriching shareholders via privatised incarceration – will be ideally positioned to take over the bulk of probation’s core public sector work."

The article concludes:-

"When probation is thriving, communities benefit, offenders are rehabilitated and the creation of future victims is prevented.  The original reintegrative ethos underpinning probation reflects its immense social worth.  That ethos has been eroded leading to a service increasingly focused on enforcement and driven by targets.  However, it remains a service which effectively reduces reoffending and offers society real value for money.  Despite this, the Coalition Government is driving through plans which will render that service less effective.  That they remain intent on pursuing these plans exposes the primary motive for the changes as private profit, not public service delivery.  In fiscal terms, probation costs the public purse a fraction of the price of incarceration.  The cost of corporate tax avoidance in a single year is estimated by HM Revenue and Customs to be approximately £4.1 billion.  This sum alone would fund the probation service for five years.  The Government is instead poised to jettison over a century of rehabilitative experience in order to reward the interests of shareholders.  Probation undertakes invaluable – albeit frequently undervalued – work.  Its dismantling is not inevitable; consultation on these proposals is underway.  An urgent rethink is required, lest we consign over a century of public sector rehabilitative experience to the dustbin of history."

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