Long read: The criminological case for co-operatives

On 8 February, David Cameron spoke about the need for “comprehensive prison reform”; this subject was also addressed last year by Dave Nicholson (Co-operative and Mutual Solutions and the Ideas...

On 8 February, David Cameron spoke about the need for “comprehensive prison reform”; this subject was also addressed last year by Dave Nicholson (Co-operative and Mutual Solutions and the Ideas Mine) and Cliff Mills (Anthony Collins Solicitors and Mutuo) in a chapter on criminal-justice in The Co-operative Advantage (edited by Ed Mayo and published in 2015 by Co-operatives UK). In this updated extract from the book, they look at the case for co-operative and mutual models, and explore the powerful innovations which co-operation can contribute to criminal justice services and rehabilitation.

The Co-operative Advantage, edited by Ed Mayo, was published in 2015 by Co-operative UK
The Co-operative Advantage, edited by Ed Mayo, was published in 2015 by Co-operative UK

The idea of co-operation might not spring immediately to mind when thinking about prisons, probation and community justice, but the involvement of co-operatives and mutuals in running these services has quite a history. As the role of the state shrinks, if these important services are not just to be left to private ownership, then citizens and communities need new mechanisms whereby they can assume a greater role and responsibility in the criminal-justice system and support the re-integration of ex-offenders into mainstream society.

The criminological case for revisiting co-operative and mutual models is strengthened by contemporary evidence and innovation which suggests that co-operative ideas could play a powerful role in promoting what is termed ‘desistance’ – the process through which people cease and refrain from offending.

Alongside contemporary ideas about co-operatives with multiple constituencies of interest (often referred to as ‘multi-stakeholder’), user and staff membership creates the opportunity for a redesigned service-delivery model based on the lines of co-production. Learning from abroad, particularly from the Italian social co-operative sector, also provides evidence of the opportunities for co-operative innovation in criminal-justice in the UK.

The UK’s current criminal-justice system faces challenging questions about whether it is working effectively, in particular in relation to the repetition of crime and the challenge of reoffending. Offending and reoffending come at a cost to wider society, estimated in England and Wales at around £60 billion, which makes effective prevention an important strategy.

The UK prison population over the past 20 years has risen to over 85,000. And yet a prisoner released from a prison in England and Wales has a one-in-two chance of being re-convicted within a year. Court-ordered community sentences are more effective, but still nearly a quarter of offenders receiving community sentences reoffend within two months of their order starting.

The National Offender Management Service Agency is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, which directly manages 117 public prisons, manages the contracts of 14 private prisons, and is responsible for the prisoner population. It commissions and funds services from 21 community rehabilitation companies (formerly 35 probation trusts) which oversee approximately 165,000 offenders serving community sentences. The prison and probation services in England and Wales cost the state close to £3.5 billion per annum. Within the context of a wider sector, relating to crime and security, is this money being spent in the most effective way?

The Coalition Government’s response from 2010 to 2015 was to open up probation and prison services in England and Wales to competition and so transform rehabilitation – while the Scottish Government has also looked at options for reorganising services, albeit with far less of a focus on external contracting. The ‘transforming rehabilitation’ programme in England and Wales aims to change the way offenders are managed in the community to bring down reoffending rates while continuing to protect the public.

The key aspirations of the Coalition’s reforms were:

  • opening up the market to a diverse range of new rehabilitation providers to get the best out of the public, voluntary and private sectors and giving them the flexibility to do what works
  • moving to a payments system based on real reductions in reoffending (‘payment by results’) rather than on simply processing offenders
  • giving orders for statutory supervision and rehabilitation in the community to every offender released from custody, including 50,000 of the most prolific group of offenders (those sentenced to less than 12 months in custody)
  • stablishing a nationwide ‘through the prison gate’ resettlement service to give most offenders continuity of support from custody into the community
  • establishing a network of resettlement prisons which will seek to ensure that most offenders continue to be supported by the same provider as they move from custody into the community
  • a new public-sector National Probation Service that will work predominantly with the most high-risk offenders
  • forming 21 new community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), the ownership and management of which were to be decided by a competitive tendering process, which would seek to turn round the lives of medium- and low-risk offenders.

Originally, in 9 of the 21 areas, probation staff were receiving Cabinet Office support to form “mutuals” which would bid in partnership with the private sector to take over the CRCs in their areas. Most of these mutuals were simply employee-owned, but one was aiming to be a ‘fully fledged’ mutual with staff, service users, victims and the local community sharing ownership and control. As it turned out, the private sector was successful in 20 of the 21 cases, and a joint public sector social enterprise approach took over the last one.

The Ministry of Justice’s original intention to enable the emergence of a range of new providers, including co-operative and mutual providers, was consistent with the evolving role of co-operative and mutual providers elsewhere in public-service reform, but it came to nothing in the context of rehabilitation. However the Prime Minister’s recent speech about prisons – and his stated desire to do with prisons what had been done with education through academies – suggests that new opportunities may arise. Co-operative trust schools were the movement’s response in education, and there are now hundreds of them. What are the possibilities in rehabilitation?

“Co-operative trust schools were the movement’s response in education, and there are now hundreds of them. What are the possibilities in rehabilitation?”

In a number of areas, such as housing, health and social care, there is a strong current desire to move on from a traditional and paternalistic service-delivery model where the service-user is the passive recipient of services from the provider through what can be characterised as an ‘us and them’ relationship. The ‘modern mutual’ approach insists that the service is more likely to be effective if the user and provider work together to achieve (co-produce) the desired objective, which they co-own. A binary (or sometimes even an adversarial) user-provider relationship tends not to be the most effective basis for strategic planning, or the optimisation of increasingly stretched public funds. The foundation needs to be one of collaboration instead, and modern mutuality seeks to incorporate into the ownership and governance structure of the service itself the key constituencies of interest, who are most affected by the service.

Through embedding co-ownership and co-production in the design of the organisation itself, it seeks to support a fundamental culture change towards a new and collaborative model of service delivery.

While the criminal-justice context involves a necessary deprivation of freedom (part of the punishment element) in other respects (correction/ reform, rehabilitation) there are some strong parallels with the care system, where a successful collaboration between user and provider is much more likely to reduce long-term costs and increase long-term benefits.

Informal co-operative management arrangements have in fact long been a feature of some UK prisons. Prison councils are currently being promoted by the National Offender Management Service, and democratic therapeutic communities in prisons have successfully converted some prisons into places of therapy and education, made possible by the co-management and co-responsibility of the two constituencies that shape the prison setting: prison staff and inmates. Indeed, without such therapy and education supporting offenders to adjust their future behaviour, it hardly seems reasonable to expect incarceration to reduce reoffending rates and reinforce desistance.

hmp humber - cropped for web
HMP Humber, Yorkshire

The Royal Society of Arts has been piloting this sort of multi-stakeholder approach to the ownership, management and delivery of prison services at HMP Humber in Yorkshire. Although this ‘Transitions’ Project describes itself as ‘A Social Enterprise Approach to Prison and Rehabilitation’ it bears all the hallmarks of the multi-stakeholder co-operative and mutual approach, arguing that prison services should be: “…co-designed and delivered by service users, local employers, local people and civic institutions; all would have a voice in how it is designed and run”.

Professor Alison Liebling, Director of the Prisons Research Centre at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, describes this approach in the Transitions Report as: “Wholly consistent with existing practice, but [which] attempts to offer a co-productive form of public-service management that is explicitly and uncompromisingly rehabilitationist”.

There are two powerful innovations which co-operation can contribute to criminal-justice services and rehabilitation. The first co-operative advantage is to be found in the mechanisms created by multi-constituency organisational models which are capable of transforming relations between the key constituencies of interest, including between prisoners themselves, both during custody and afterwards.

“There are two powerful innovations which co-operation can contribute to criminal-justice services and rehabilitation.”

Traditional co-operative and mutual organisations have emerged, generally, through the impetus of a single constituency – generally customers, workers or producers – embarking on a self-help initiative based on their shared needs. While there are some examples of multi-constituency models from the mid-19th century onwards (co-partnership societies, for example), the single constituency model has been dominant. However, in more recent decades there has been growing interest in models specifically aimed at introducing more than one constituency.

The involvement of more than one constituency, where successfully done, has the effect of building into the very organisational design the basic requirement for co-operation or collaboration between those constituencies. The governance must be carefully designed, because it has to provide a mechanism – a mechanism which the different constituencies of members have signed up to by choosing to participate – for resolving tensions between those constituencies. But that is the whole point: tensions constantly arise in running a business or service, where there is some conflict between the interests of one group and those of another. In the traditional investor-owned model, investors are in control, and all other constituencies are excluded from any formal constitutional role in making such decisions.

In the multi-constituency model, the various constituencies of interest are brought together within the governance, so that the organisation itself becomes the mechanism for mediating the tensions between them, rather than excluding one or more of them to fight for their rights from outside the organisation – via the media, single-interest groups etc. In the context of personal care, clearly the reason for adopting a multi-constituency approach is to ensure that those for whom the service exists, namely patients or service-users, have a permanent and audible voice within the organisation. This has tended in the past not to be the case, for a range of understandable reasons based generally around the vulnerability and powerlessness of such individuals against the knowledge, expertise and incomparably greater power of those in the position of carers or managers of care.

The multi-constituency approach therefore poses a number of challenges – to traditional governance and decision-making, to established models of service delivery, to the normal power balance between practitioner and citizen, to the very human relationships at the heart of such services. But it is these challenges that are fundamental to the innovative power of the multi-constituency approach, because they are needed to promote institutional, cultural and social change throughout public-service delivery, which is currently predicated upon a consumer-style, ‘done-to’ approach that is economically unsustainable.

In the context of rehabilitation, the relevant constituencies of interest clearly include prisoners and ex-offenders, prison and probation staff, victims, family and friends, and community. The relative importance and appropriate influence of each of these clearly needs to be carefully considered in each different situation, particularly in the interests of security and public safety. In principle, however, these are all voices that should be heard in making strategic decisions about and shaping criminal-justice services, and these are all constituencies that should play a part in monitoring and holding to account those who exercise executive power over the everyday delivery of such services.

But there is arguably an even more powerful co-operative advantage where co-operation can make an innovative contribution in this field, namely the role which participation through membership of a co-operative or mutual organisation can play in supporting desistance and rehabilitation. Not only does the multi-constituency approach provide support to a wholly new approach to management and service delivery, it also becomes even more important in the particular case of rehabilitation services for prisoners because of the ways in which co-operatives and mutuals can generate the social capital that research suggests supports the reduction of reoffending or ‘desistance’.

“At the heart of the concept of co-operation is participation by individuals in a common endeavour, through membership of an association.”

At the heart of the concept of co-operation is participation by individuals in a common endeavour, through membership of an association. In the context of supporting desistance, that very participation is itself an ingredient of the therapeutic process: being a member of a bespoke ‘society’ for individuals aimed at promoting desistance (a more tolerant ‘society’ which acknowledges that its members may relapse from time to time) aims to be a step along the pathway towards and preparation for a more successful membership of society itself.

Desistance research has consistently emphasised the significance of not only the acquisition of capacities to govern and control the direction of one’s life but also the opportunities to exercise those capacities. Involvement in ‘generative activities’ (that contribute to the wellbeing of others), such as mentoring, volunteering, or employment, can support the development or internalisation of an alternative identity or shifts in one’s sense of self. Engagement in generative activities has also been shown to ameliorate the effects of a stigmatised identity, re-establish a sense of self-worth and, importantly, a sense of citizenship. This suggests that the process of desistance from crime is not solely a within-individual phenomenon but is also dependent on interactions between the individual and their relationships, their immediate environment, community and the social structure. As such, supporting the development of social capital, fostering connections between people and restoring relationships are key components in supporting desistance.

The multi-constituency model has another vitally important feature. Promoting desistance is, crucially, not just something for offenders and probation staff. Society itself has a role to play in receiving back individuals, and needs to engage in the process for it to be completed. The tendency for modern society physically to remove criminality from its midst and put it out of sight masks a deeper societal reluctance to face up to failure, and to enter into vulnerability by contemplating forgiveness. There is a contemporary cultural need for society to be drawn into the process of rehabilitation.

If a core goal of the criminal-justice system is to encourage offenders to desist from criminal activity, then co-operative models are perfectly aligned, as they harness precisely the component factors that research suggests are core to reducing reoffending. At the same time, while there are good models overseas to draw upon, there will be a need to prove what is possible before thinking more widely. Clearly now is the time to pilot a co-operative approach to rehabilitation in the UK.

  • This updated extract is from The Co-operative Advantage, edited by Ed Mayo and published by Co-operatives UK in 2015, which looks at innovation, co-operation and why sharing business ownership is good for Britain. You can order hard copies at www.uk.coop/coopadvantage or by calling 0161 214 1750. Ebook versions can be found at s.coop/1xqxd
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