by Kevin Albertson, Mary Corcoran and Jake Phillips
9th July 2020

It may seem an inopportune time to be publishing a book that considers the extent of marketisation and privatisation in criminal justice.

The experiment that was Transforming Rehabilitation has recently had ‘time’ called on it, in many UK industries privatisation is seemingly in reverse and the NHS has shown its worth despite a decade of underfunding resulting, at least in part, from the austerity implemented in response to the crisis of 2008. It seems reasonable to conclude many have had enough of globalised markets and their (sometimes creative) destructive forces.

Recurrent crises

With or without COVID-19, there is evidence the world economy would have entered a financial crisis in 2020. We have known for some time that our financialised economy has been causing humanity, on aggregate, to live beyond our means. In the current crisis, talk abounds of how we might use this opportunity to build back better, and adopt a slower-moving more sustainable life. This is also what the public want – only nine per cent of Britons want the new ‘normal’ to mirror the pre-COVID-19 normal.

However, we must remember that similar calls were made to return to a slower more sustainable trajectory of life in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008. Despite this, ‘business as usual’ became re-established as the watchword of governing parties of the inter-crisis years, 2010 to 2020. The opportunity the first global financial crisis afforded to move to a more stable economy was wasted.

The neoliberal policy paradigm which had arguably contributed so much to the first crisis remained the default socio-political ideology of the preceding decade, setting the stage for the current global crisis. Policy makers had apparently failed to learn the lesson of 2008 that market forces will often misprice risk and that public provision is indeed required for sustainable provision of services.

Political paradigms

It is not possible, of course, to attribute complex political scenarios to a single causality – such as national political economy – and for every struggling neoliberalised democracy, one may find other countries with comparatively stable and orderly systems for managing the fallout from COVID-19. However, it is empirically indefensible to fail to consider how the pandemic has unmasked the lack of sustainable growth and increase in inequalities exacerbated by globalised neoliberal policies. The symptoms of these are our capacities to protect ourselves (or not) along lines of race, gender, geography, access to healthcare, work-risk profile and economic status.

The question we face now, therefore, is how to prevent the lessons learned from the current crisis also going to waste; how to prevent people’s prospects becoming yet further diminished and our economies even more exposed to destabilising global forces. The publication of this book therefore comes at a pivotal time when the features of life, thought and governance which we have come to associate with liberal democracy are at risk.

Where we are

When this collection was originally mooted in 2018, the ascendancy of market forces in policing, prisons, probation, legal services and the courts, as well as corollary health and social services, was a seemingly irreversible international trend; one which had a particularly strong grip in the UK. As of this moment, the debate appears to have shifted to a conspicuously ‘post-market’ mode, underlined by excited talk about the ‘return of the central State’ and promises of neo-Keynesian investment stimuli of ‘Rooseveltian’ scale. However, the Big State rarely augurs well for penal reformers, reductionists or abolitionists – especially under current political conditions where any response to COVID-19 threatens civil liberties we may formerly have taken for granted – such as the right of free movement.

It is not clear whether policy makers will heed current calls to complement (perhaps to replace much of) criminal justice with social justice, or whether investment will be aimed at targeting available spending into prison building, increasing police numbers, bankrolling and renationalising failed marketisation experiments while investment in civil society and social justice is marginalised.

Looking forward

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. We are proud that this book contains so many lessons of the recent past and hope that it will serve to illuminate appropriate public policy in the future.


Marketisation and Privatisation in Criminal Justice edited by Kevin Albertson, Mary Corcoran and Jake Phillips is available from Policy Press, imprint of Bristol University Press. Order the book here for £23.19.

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