Site Meter

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Bringing prisoners back home

Bringing prisoners back home

by Shadd Maruna 23 July 2010

It is an exciting time to be in the offender rehabilitation business. That is not a sentence one hears very often. Even the phrase ‘offender rehabilitation’ has become an anachronism at best and a dirty word at worst over the last three decades. The whole rehabilitation enterprise was surely the first and least celebrated failure of the post-war welfare state. Yet, suddenly Tory Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and Police Minister Nick Herbert are talking about something they call a ‘rehabilitation revolution’, of all things, and promising to unveil a radical, new approach to reintegrating former prisoners in a green paper this autumn.

There are, of course, many reasons to be sceptical of such talk. First, it is hard to get too excited about revolutions emerging from the party of ‘Prison Works’, especially in the middle of a crippling recession. Indeed, preceding a rehabilitation initiative with the announcement of deep cuts to the probation service is hardly an auspicious start.

Yet, there is reason for optimism as well. Political affiliations no longer seem to mean anything in regards to criminal justice policymaking in the UK. When Jack Straw writes a column in the Daily Mail attacking the Tories for ‘hand-wringing’ over justice issues and openly pines for Michael Howard’s tough talk, we have clearly entered an Alice in Wonderland moment in British criminal justice.

As for the economic downturn, the punishment business may be the one area of government spending where less might mean more. That is, this recession may turn out to be a good thing for crime policy if it is responsible for Clark’s recognition that the ‘remorseless rise in the prison population’ cannot be sustained. The short-term prison sentences that have recently fallen out of favour in Scotland are more than just ‘ineffective’, ‘inefficient’, and ‘pointless’ (although they are certainly all three).

There is firm criminological evidence that they are actively counter-productive, causing more crime, not less. The experience of mass incarceration in the United States has been to create a seemingly permanent ‘criminal class’, stigmatising not just individual prisoners, but their whole families — even their communities. If a central part of the coalition government’s upcoming plans will be to reconsider the ‘prison works’ fantasy, then viva la revolution!

In truth, though, despite the pleasing alliteration, what is likely to be proposed is less a rehabilitation revolution than a devolution. The plan appears to be about ‘rolling back the state’, rethinking centralised, state-run efforts at reintegration and instead seeking to grow the ‘big society’ in the form of community-based projects, charities, and, yes, private enterprises who will be paid on the basis of the results (with higher payments for lower reconviction numbers). In theory (and at the plan’s most idealistic), rehabilitation — that annoying burden for the state — would be given back to its rightful owners: us.

Thirty years ago, the Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie wrote a soon-to-be legendary article titled ‘Conflict as Property’ arguing that the state has done the public a disservice through the professionalisation of crime control in the form of the courts, police, prisons and so forth. By ‘stealing’ conflicts from communities, through the state monopoly over justice, Christie argued, ordinary citizens have been robbed of our ability to resolve disputes ourselves. The article, recently named one of the most influential ever published in the British Journal of Criminology, has become a sort of bible to the restorative justice movement internationally.

Christie did not, in his analysis, consider the professionalisation of rehabilitation, which was then under assault from all quarters, left and right. Yet his core argument may be even more relevant there than it is to conflict resolution. Rehabilitation never sat well as a function of the state. Silly, Orwellian words like ‘offender management’ could never hide the fact that a monthly appointment in a probation office was not really ‘supervision’, and hardly anyone outside of the Home Office really ever believed ‘offender treatment’ (whatever that was) was something that could be calibrated by ‘dosage’ and tested through random control trials like some new laundry detergent.

Ex-prisoners and probation officers know that real reintegration is a complex, dynamic process that involves the returning prisoner, his or her family, and his or her community. ‘You rehabilitate yourself’ is the prisoners’ mantra. Of course, their families, employers, and support networks also play a huge role, but the state’s role is more often than not a negative one, a burden to live with or an obstacle to overcome in order to desist. Reintegration happens when a person proves himself to be more than just ‘an offender’, and others are willing to risk giving the person a second chance.

Criminologists have been studying these organic processes — which we refer to as ‘desistance from crime’ — intensely for over a decade. Rather than asking why so many young men get involved in criminal behaviours, this research asks instead why so many of those young men seem to grow out of crime as they age.

The implications of this research for crime reduction policy are far-reaching. In a recent article with the provocative (if overblown) title ‘Why Crime Went Away’, Time Magazine tried to grapple with the sharp drop in violent crime in the United States over the past 20 years. The article begins by quoting a number of police chiefs who, unsurprisingly, claim that all the credit goes to police chiefs, but then surveys academic criminologists who instead point to the changing age demographics of American society. With the Baby Boom Generation, the ‘average’ American is getting older — the media age has risen to over 36 years old, and crime is typically a young man’s vice. The article concludes, ‘It has been said that the most effective crime-fighting tool is a 30th birthday’.

Indeed, on the basis of longitudinal cohort studies of crime in the life course, criminologists estimate that around 85 per cent of those young people we label ‘offenders’ will desist from crime by the time they are 28. In other words, maturation is more powerful than any ‘programme’ delivered by the prison service or others to reduce crime. For precisely this reason, criminologists and criminal justice policy makers in the United Kingdom have started moving away from a ‘medical model’ perspective that focuses on particular rehabilitation programmes and instead toward a ‘desistance paradigm’ for correctional practice.

University of Glasgow Professor Fergus McNeill explains this ‘desistance paradigm’ thus: ‘Put simply, the implication is that offender management services need to think of themselves less as providers of correctional treatment (that belongs to the expert) and more as supporters of desistance processes (that belong to the desister)’. If there is a role for the state here, it is in supporting (and not hindering) these normative, organic forces associated with growing up.

Under such a model, the role of the probation services becomes less about ‘correcting’ wrong-doers (never an easy task) and instead about helping build community capacity for reintegration, and supporting the families of prisoners (the hidden victims of crime who are the ones responsible for providing the ‘supervision’ and ‘support’ needed for rehabilitation). Many in probation welcome such a shift that, for many, goes back to the core community justice values that drew them into the service originally.

Are there risks of the devolution/revolution going horribly wrong though? Most certainly. The ‘payment by results’ idea, central to the claim that this revolution is about value for money, has holes the size of moon craters. We are told that non-state groups will receive payment on the basis of their ability to reduce reconviction rates. Yet, these rates are a reflection of state behaviour as much as individual behaviour.

Even more problematically, the fundamental flaw involved in giving rehabilitation back to the community is the pesky issue of who we mean by ‘community’. As criminologist Stan Cohen brilliantly illustrated in Visions of Social Control, ‘community’ is a magic word, meaning everything but nothing. There is a danger that rehabilitation will be devolved not to community organisations with real legitimacy to returning ex-prisoners but rather to profit-driven, private providers.

The private sector has an enormous role to play in the reintegration process, but mainly as employers. Giving public money to private enterprises as an incentive for them to hire former prisoners makes considerable sense. Giving public money to private enterprises to have them deliver the same services that probation used to deliver (but with less professionalism, less training, and less expertise) is a recipe for disaster.

After all, the truly exciting idea behind devolution would be to devolve reintegration work not to outside private security outfits, but to the actual communities where ex-prisoners are returning. Ex-prisoners do not represent a representative sample of the British population. There are clear and obvious patterns in the neighbourhoods from which ex-prisoners are drawn and to which they typically return. Probably the most important idea in criminal justice reform in the past decade, endorsed by all three major political parties in Britain, is the idea of ‘justice reinvestment’, at the heart of which is a shift of resources from the prisons to those communities most impacted by crime.

In launching the House of Commons report Cutting Crime: The Case for Justice Reinvestment, Sir Alan Beith MP, Liberal Democrat and then chairman of the Justice Committee, said that the Government faces a choice ‘between unsustainable “business-as-usual” in the criminal justice system, and making some radical decisions’ in this time of sharp financial restraint: ‘Instead of sinking endless resources into prisons, it is time to make tough choices and reinvest in other parts of the criminal justice system, and, equally importantly, invest in a range of community and public services outside the system that can do most to cut crime.’

For offender reintegration, justice reinvestment would mean investing in grassroots projects embedded in former prisoners’ communities. Ideally, many of these will be led by or at least staffed by former prisoners themselves, those who have ‘been there’, and to whom other returning ex-prisoners can relate — individuals who have community legitimacy, and who are integrated in the local social networks that will be essential in the reintegration process.

Through a coincidence of history, Northern Ireland provides some exemplars in this regard. Because several NI communities — in both nationalist/republican and loyalist/unionist areas — were cut off from policing and other justice services during the region’s political conflict, a number of truly grassroots, community-based restorative justice projects have emerged in Belfast and other cities, realising Christie’s community justice vision.

Organisations like Alternatives Northern Ireland on the Shankill Road and Community Restorative Justice Ireland in the Falls Road area can approach the rehabilitation process not with standardised risk assessment measures and key performance indicators, but rather with a sense of familiarity that only comes with living in the same community. Ironically, these groups emerged out of a state conflict in Northern Ireland, but if things go well in the rehabilitation devolution, they may just represent the future of community justice throughout the UK.

Shadd Maruna is the Director of the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Queen’s University Belfast and the author of ‘Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives’.

No comments: