It is what you might call the American nightmare. A man steals a $2 can of beer, and gets caught. He’s then sentenced to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet for a year. This, it turns out, is no free lunch.
The man ends up owing the company that makes the ankle bracelet – Sentinel Offender Services – more than a thousand dollars in fees and late payment penalties. He sells his blood plasma to make payments but cannot raise enough. Subsequently, a Georgia court jails the man, not for stealing a can of beer, but for failing to cough up the debt he owes Sentinel.
Where once probation was a public service provided free to offenders, now a number of US states outsource the job to private companies, such as Sentinel, who are free to charge probationers for their own supervision. Many Americans who got into trouble with the law in the first place because they ran out of money – failing to renew a driver’s licence, for example – end up owing far more to the companies that oversee their probation.
Only in America, eh? Yes and no. The UK Ministry of Justice is in the process of privatising its probation services, and guess who’s in the running for a contract in 6 of the 21 package areas? Why if it isn’t those ticklesome folk at Sentinel. For the moment, there’s no sign that the "offender-funded" model they pioneered will cross the pond. But from 2015 – if all goes to plan – private companies will be responsible for the probation of more than two-thirds of released prisoners.
Right now, all is not going to plan. Let me refer you to a few lines from a promotional video for Crest Advisory, a firm which offers crisis communications services to any company that wants a piece of the probation pie: “Transforming Rehabilitation presents a unique set of risks to the reputations of those who want to deliver it. It’s politically controversial [and] it’s operationally challenging, a frontline public service involving vulnerable and sometimes chaotic people. In probation, when things go wrong, the results can be tragic.”
In other words, you’d better be prepared for some extremely bad press if, say, a felon your company is supposed to be handling stabs somebody on the street. And if people have reason to believe that you were cutting corners to boost profit margins, well, you’re going to need plenty of rope to get out of that hole.
Ex-convicts went AWOL, and worse, with probation under full state control. But on the whole the service was doing a fine job. To justify his dismantling of it, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling had to fudge statistics and dance around the fact that re-offending rates have been falling since 2006-07.
At times, the instinctive left-wing opposition to privatisation falls foul of common sense. This is not one of those times. The Government’s own project assessment system has given Transforming Rehabilitation a "red" warning – its worst. Even putting aside ethical objections to the introduction of a profit-motive into complex social work (and they take some putting aside) commercial ones remain. There’s money to be made here, sure. But, with lives on the line, can it possibly be enough?