In Defence of the Rehabilitation Revolution

There is a real problem at the heart of the government’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” programme: nearly half of those released from prison reoffend within a year. Given that we spend more than £3 billion annually on prisons, this represents a poor return on investment. It also highlights the human tragedy at the centre of our criminal justice system: too many offenders are stuck in a vicious cycle of crime from which they are unable to escape.

The goal of “Transforming Rehabilitation” is to break this cycle by implementing two complementary policies. The first is to extend statutory rehabilitation services to all those leaving prison and to ensure that they are given continuous “through the gate” support. This could mean helping released offenders to find housing, overcome substance abuse and mental health problems, or address deficits in their eduction and training. It could  mean helping them to get identification, sign up for benefits, or apply for jobs. It could even mean counseling them on how to improve their family relationships

The second policy is designed to ensure that this approach yields the best possible results without increasing costs to the taxpayer. It involves opening up the provision of rehabilitation services to competing private and voluntary sector organizations, and then paying them based on their success keeping offenders out of trouble. If these new providers achieve lower reoffending rates than the existing system, they will make money; if not, they stand to lose out. This means they will be motivated to find and develop better ways of reducing recidivism, without spending more money.

This aspect of the reforms is about more than just creating the right financial incentives, however. It is also about driving a cultural shift in the criminal justice system, moving us away from a focus on retribution and towards an emphasis on reintegration—that is, towards helping people to turn their lives around and become productive members of society. Such a dramatic change in priorities is difficult to achieve without the fresh thinking and innovative management that new, independent providers bring to the table. And that is why private and voluntary sector involvement is central to the government’s criminal justice reforms.

That these plans are typically described as “privatising the probation service” conceals as much as it illuminates. This is not the kind of privatisation that Margaret Thatcher pursued in the 1980s. It is not part of an ideological battle over the commanding heights of the economy. Nor is it an exercise in rolling back the frontiers of the state. In fact, “Transforming Rehabilitation” is about something much more commonplace and mundane than that: the well-established use of performance-based contracting as a tool to make government more efficient and effective.

How well this works has much to do with the efficacy of procurement and contract management processes. And it is on these unglamorous grounds that the government’s “Transforming Rehabilitation” plan will ultimately be judged. The intention behind the plan is admirable, and the idea underlying it is sound. Yet, as always, the devil is in the detail. The government should certainly move ahead with its rehabilitation revolution, but it must do so with great care and attention.

Originally published by The House Magazine.

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