The Dismantling of Probation: Who Will Profit?

by Michael Teague

Having already been reshaped by decades of neoliberalism, an essential component of our civic society is now set to be effectively privatised.

First published: 19 February, 2013 | Category: Corporate power, Law, Privatisation

After 105 years of world-class rehabilitative intervention, the probation service in England and Wales is about to be effectively dismantled.  This essential component of our civic society is about to be sacrificed on the altar of shareholder profit. 

What is the context of the planned changes?  In England and Wales, the risk of becoming a victim of crime is now lower than at any point since the mid-1990s.  Probation’s rehabilitative work has played a key role in this reduced risk.  The service also provides substantial fiscal value to taxpayers.  Out of the whole National Offender Management Service annual budget of £3.7 billion in 2011-12 (which includes the cost of imprisonment), slightly less than one fifth was spent on probation.  It cost £37,648 to accommodate a single prisoner in 2011-12,[1] a sum which would fund around nine community orders.  In terms of staff numbers, the probation service is relatively small.  With just 16,710 employees, it is around one third of the size of the prison service, and a ninth of the size of the police.  Its remarkably small workforce notwithstanding, probation was in September 2012 responsible for supervising some 227,339 people, around three times the size of the current prison population of 83,999 inmates in England and Wales, which serves to underline the scale of probation’s accomplishment on relatively limited resources.  The agency has not just achieved its targets, it was even awarded the British Quality Foundation’s Gold Medal for Excellence – the first time a public sector organisation has won this prestigious award.  In short, probation already provides real value. 

Nevertheless, the de facto privatisation of probation has been made a key component of the Coalition government’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’, which the Ministry of Justice defines as the establishment of ‘an offender management system that harnesses the innovation of the private and voluntary sectors, including options for using payment by results, to cut reoffending’.[2]  Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, fresh from implementing the Work Programme as employment minister, is making a concerted push for payment by results in probation.  Efforts have been made to sugar the privatisation pill by emphasising the potential of charities and voluntary groups to perform rehabilitative work currently undertaken by probation.  The Ministry of Justice’s 2013 consultation document, ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’,[3] outlined plans to allow private companies and charities to manage a range of services, including community supervision.  

While in Tim Newburn’s estimation, the Coalition’s proposals may not quite amount to probation’s death knell, there is little doubt that what will remain will be a qualitatively different service.  Probation is set to be stripped of its core responsibilities, with the exception of public protection work with high risk offenders and the provision of information to the courts.  An estimated 70 percent of the service’s core tasks are being put out to tender.  This means that it will be divested of the majority of its current client group, with just 50,000 of its current caseload of some 227,000 clients remaining under public sector supervision.  The copious evidence of probation’s effectiveness confirms the sense that the government is scrabbling around for statistics to validate a policy already decided upon, rather than letting the evidence dictate the formulation of that policy.  

Despite official insistence that these changes are aimed at introducing competition, achieving greater efficiency and providing value for taxpayers, Probation Trusts will not be allowed to bid directly for the tendered work, suggesting that it is the interests of the private sector that are the key driving force behind the shift to payment by results.  There are also concerns that privatisation may lead to less qualified staff working with offenders (it costs around £93,000 to train probation officers).  This has the potential to undermine public protection, community safety, and the quality of intervention.  It may therefore lead to higher levels of offending, which may in turn produce more victims.  It is unclear therefore how the proposals will achieve their aim of decreased public expenditure.

Privatised probation: the American Experience 

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. 

Who will profit? 

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.  

If the G4S Olympics security fiasco, which eventually necessitated the army being called in to salvage the situation, is any indicator, then there must be concern for probation’s future.  Even G4S chief executive Nick Buckles admitted that the Olympics fiasco was a ‘humiliating shambles’ for his company.  The parliamentary Home Affairs committee report noted that all their witnesses, including those from G4S itself, were agreed that, ‘The blame for G4S's failure to deliver on its contract rests firmly and solely with the company.’[4] The committee’s comments on G4S may strike a cautionary note for probation’s future should it be privatised: 

The Government should not be in the business of rewarding failure with taxpayers' money.  As private sector providers play an increasingly important role in the delivery of police and criminal justice services, it is vital that those commissioning services look at the track-records of prospective providers.[5]

 Neoliberalism and probation

Probation has been nurtured and developed for over a century as the key cornerstone of our community justice system.   Regardless of the rhetoric accompanying the ‘rehabilitation revolution’, the reality may be that the privatisation of probation is about the deprioritisation of rehabilitation and penal-welfare intervention.  How has this come to pass?  Neoliberal governments of both the right (Thatcher, Major, Cameron) and the centre left (Blair, Brown) have propelled the economic and social policies of the UK towards a standpoint which emphasises the centrality of market processes.  It is hardly surprising that this prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy has now informed the debate on probation, just as it has other areas of the justice system and wider public policy.

 While the linkage between neoliberal governments and crime control is complex, even ambiguous, neoliberalism has arguably prioritised punitiveness, de-prioritised rehabilitation, fostered a growing incarcerated population and engaged in the pursuit of private profit at the expense of social justice within the carceral and probation systems.  There is plentiful evidence to demonstrate the linkage between neoliberalism and the deployment of punitive penal policies[6].  Neoliberal culture – which typically depicts individual offenders as ultimately personally culpable for their offending, rather than understanding offending as related to social and economic structures – may be linked with not just a tendency to punish, but also  with greater offending and violence[7].  A punitive outcome is rendered more likely with neoliberal regimes because of the conditions created and fostered by neoliberal policies, including the marketisation of society, notions of individual responsibility for behaviour, poverty and inequality.

 England and Wales already possesses the most privatised prison system in Europe.  The impending large scale privatisation of policing, with activities which may encompass crime investigation, suspect detention and the street-level patrol of individual localities, is evidence of the scale of change.  The imminent privatisation of probation provides a further example of the neoliberal endorsement of the processes of deregulation and wholesale marketisation.  The imperative to generate private profit occupies a key role in the neoliberal penal-policy complex.

Contemporary probation is a radically different agency to that constructed by the early rehabilitative pioneers.  The service’s shift away from a social work value base towards a culture of compliance and enforcement has been paralleled by a concomitant shift in the culture of probation.  The role of frontline probation practitioners has gradually been transformed from that of rehabilitative agents, who prioritise therapeutic intervention, to agents who function in a marketised environment, preoccupied with the demonstration of their ‘effectiveness’[8] by prioritising targets and meeting key performance indicators.  Those individuals with whom the probation service worked began to be labelled as ‘offenders’ rather than ‘clients’.  Probation's professional ethos has undergone upheaval as the service has embarked on a process of transformation from what was previously, in essence, an organisation engaged in social work intervention to an agency driven by the key imperative of law enforcement.

The pervasive influence of neoliberal culture has contributed to the continuing transformation of our justice system into a competitive market place in which the attainment of financial return rather than social justice is a primary driver.  It is hardly surprising that this process was likely to culminate in privatisation.  Following decades of neoliberalism, we can no longer view the growing privatisation of public sector justice services, including prisons, policing and now probation, as either tentative or experimental.  As long as private interests inspired by the overarching goal of profit are in a position to influence – even dictate – policies and processes, its impact will continue to be felt throughout our justice system and the wider society. 

Making a choice

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.

Michael Teague is a criminologist and member of the Social Futures Institute at Teesside University.  He is currently researching probation culture.

Further Reading

Vicki Helyar-Cardwell, Delivering Justice: The role of the public, private and voluntary sectors in prisons and probation (London: Criminal Justice Alliance, 2012)

Robert Reiner, ‘Neoliberalism, crime and justice’, in Rebecca Roberts & Will Mcmahon, (eds.), Social justice and criminal justice (London: Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, 2007) pp.  8-21

Michael Teague, ‘Probation in America: Armed, private and unaffordable?’, Probation Journal 58/4:, 2011, pp.317-32

Michael Teague, ‘Neoliberalism, Prisons and Probation in the USA and England and Wales’, in Philip Whitehead and Paul Crawshaw (eds.), Organising Neoliberalism: Markets, Privatisation and Justice (London: Anthem, 2012)

Philip Whitehead and Roger Statham, The History of Probation: Politics, Power and Cultural Change 1876-2005 (Crayford: Shaw and Sons, 2006) 

[1] National Offender Management Service, ‘Costs per place and costs per prisoner Annual Report and Accounts 2011-12 Management Information Addendum’, (London: Ministry of Justice) p.3.

[2] Ministry Of Justice, ‘Draft Structural Reform Plan’, (London: Ministry of Justice, 2003) p.3.

[3] Ministry Of Justice, ‘Transforming Rehabilitation: A revolution in the way we manage offenders’ (London: The Stationery Office, 2013).

[4] Home Affairs Committee, ‘Olympics security’, (London: The Stationery Office Ltd, 2012), para.33.

[5] Ibid.  para.40.

[6] See for example, Loïc Wacquant (2009), Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 2009) pp.1-40, and Emma Bell, Criminal Justice and Neoliberalism.  (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[7] For example, Hall and McLean noted that murder rates are significantly higher in nations with neoliberal regimes.  Hall, S.  & McLean, C.  (2009), ‘A tale of two capitalisms’, Theoretical Criminology 13/3, 2009, pp.313-39.

[8] Tim Chapman and Michael Hough, Evidence Based Practice: A Guide to Effective Practice (London: HM Inspectorate of Probation, 1998)

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