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In a brilliant RSA lecture earlier this week, criminologist Shadd Maruna offers reasons why the idea of rehabilitation has gone in and out of fashion over the decades. He suggests, for example, that the sheer cost of incarceration makes alternatives to custody more attractive in times of austerity. But the Professor also makes a deeper philosophical point about evidence, values and public policy choices.

If the focus for policy evaluation – ‘what works’ as the phrase has it – is simply immediate crime reduction then the only proven intervention is large scale incarceration. This approach doesn’t try to change offenders – except by the blunt tool of deterrence – it just keeps them off the street for as long as possible. In a narrow cause and effect calculus (what Maruna refers to as the 'Newtonian' world view) prison works.

The case for rehabilitation relies on extending the argument in two directions. First, there needs to be a wider focus on social impacts of the criminal justice system and the underlying causes of crime: Maruna quotes evidence of the impact on families, poverty and inequality of high levels of incarceration among particular social groups. However, while this evidence is powerful it is by its nature less definitively causal.

Second, the case for rehabilitation has an essential normative dimension. Maruna quotes Roger Smith thus:

‘Unlike punishment which mobilises our sense of virtue and sets us apart from the transgressor, forgiveness arouses in us and depends upon, a sense of shared weakness. We are moved to forgive out of our own need to be forgiven for what we have done in the past and may do in the future. Forgiveness, unlike punishment, moreover depends upon a life of common values and concerns’

Both the wider focus on effects and the normative underpinning point to rehabilitation as a whole systems approach. If we expect rehabilitation to work merely as an instrumental device tacked on to a mechanistic system suffused with punitive values we are doomed to fail. Gratifyingly for the RSA, Maruna closes his talk by quoting from a forthcoming report on our excellent Transitions project :

‘Rehabilitation is something all of us want to see more of but it eludes us; it is a social benefit that requires a social response.’ 

Looking at public service reform more generally this analysis may go some way toward explaining the Hawthorne effect*. This describes the depressing but reliably predictable phenomenon by which closely evaluated social innovations undertaken by pioneers succeed but the same practice fails when replicated by others. While the pioneers are inspired by a reforming zeal and a profound critique of the status quo the replicators tend to see the reform as merely as a means to an end. The values and motivation that helped the innovation succeed as an experiment are absent when the idea is ‘rolled out’ across a rule bound ‘Newtonian’ bureaucracy.

The well-meaning letter written earlier this week to the Guardian by Labour reformers failed to get much purchase beyond being another story about the travails of Ed Miliband.  The letter calls for

‘ Accountability of all powerful institutions.....Devolution of state institutions…. where possible, directly to the people. Co-production of public services by workers, users and citizens, to make them more responsive and efficient…Empowerment of everybody, so they are equipped with the resources (time, money, support) to enable them to play a full role as active citizens’.

The problem isn’t just the jargon. As critics have pointed out, much of this stuff seems pretty irrelevant to the priorities of most working class voters; in relation to values, the list is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s comment that ‘the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings’ – the implication is that the ideal society is one in which we all spend a lot of our time designing, running and holding to account our own public services.

As my colleagues Anthony Painter and Travis Wentworth argue, the RSA's idea of 'The Power to Create' chimes with the case for the local and for devolving of power to individuals and communities. But – echoing the argument for rehabilitation - the Guardian letter writers’ case needs widening and deepening if it is to have a chance of success.

On the one hand, the nature of the problem has to be clarified. The point being that if one steps back more than a couple of paces from the narrow self-serving claims made by Government departments, it is clear that in more and more cases, traditional top down, central policy making and implementation simply doesn’t work, not because of the failings of politicians nor even the specific design of policy but because of the nature of the modern world. (By the way, among the many fallacies of central Government is the idea of rolling out best practice referred to above).  If we care about sustained social progress – rather than narrow, short term, policy effects- we have no choice but to think very differently about power and policy.

On the other hand, the normative case for citizen engagement is not just about service design or public sector accountability, much less a life of committee meetings, but a prizing of human autonomy, responsibility, collaboration  and creativity; the good life well lived.  Being able to create the lives we want and to contribute to developing a society in which such individual fulfilment is realistic is not a means to a progressive future; it is that future.

The principles implied by the Guardian letter ultimately rest on a Damascene conversion from the tools and logic of central control and a re-orientation of progressive goals away from metrical equality to a richer account of the good life in the good society. As such this platform could attract people from different parts of the existing faded political spectrum. It is journey I expect to be travelled by future political leaders, but not I fear any time soon.

*Not to be confused with the Hawthorns effect which involves paying £35 to join twenty five thousand other people on a Saturday afternoon in a collective process of turning belief and hope into disillusionment and anguish.


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