Vol. 9 No. 10 (October 1999) pp. 415-416.
TO SERVE AND PROTECT: PRIVATIZATION AND COMMUNITY IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE by Bruce L. Benson. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. 416 pp. Cloth $37.50.
Reviewed by Ruth Ann Strickland, Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice, Appalachian State University.
Given the political climate following the 1994 congressional and gubernatorial elections, Bruce Benson, in TO SERVE AND PROTECT, contends that the time might be right for greater private sector involvement in crime control activities. Indeed, he argues, private-public partnerships are more pervasive and more beneficial than commonly believed. Using microeconomic theory, Benson analyzes whether the claims of critics of privatization are valid, especially the claim the for-profit businesses will cut corners and produce a lower quality service to make greater profits.
Contracting out (or partial privatization) of policing, security, corrections and court-related law enforcement services, although limited when compared to public sector provision of the same services, has expanded in scope and numbers in the last 25 years. In an examination of the potential benefits and pitfalls of contracting out, Benson concludes that contracting out typical government services to private businesses reduces costs and may enhance quality of services, depending on whether the contracting out process was competitive or noncompetitive (meaning the process was influenced by bribery, corruption, or overt political maneuvers).
Asking why more victims don't report crime, Benson cites the well-known literature about reasons for lack of victim cooperation with police and prosecutors. Data on probability of arrest, probability of prosecution, dismissals, probability of conviction and likelihood of punishment indicate that victims have good reason to question the efficacy of the criminal justice system. The author notes the rise of more voluntary group actions against crime and greater private spending for crime control. Although successfully making the case for why victims are turning to private alternatives, a much weaker case is made for why complete privatization is better than simply increasing public-private partnerships in all areas of criminal justice.
In Chapter 7, Benson presents very sketchy evidence that "complete privatization" works well and could be a substitute for public justice. He fails to present evidence about the limited ability of the private sector to address the victim concerns he discusses in Chapter 4, and he does not present any systematic data that indicate that the private sector has been more successful in all the areas that lead to lack of victim cooperation in the public sector.
Unfortunately, it is hard to measure the independent effects of privatization on crime control outcomes. Usually, both public and private sector approaches are employed. In such instances, separating out the positive and negative effects of either public sector or private sector initiatives is
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very difficult, if not impossible. In my opinion, he makes a very good argument for relying more on contracting out and using more privatization but not for complete privatization.
In the last chapter, Benson makes several recommendations, including more crime prevention watching by citizens in their communities, more community policing, increasing the use of private security, eliminating licenses and other regulatory restrictions on private security markets, ending publicly supervised pretrial release programs, encouraging more private prosecutions, privatizing indigent defense, civil remedies against police who violate constitutional rights of citizens, creating private courts with a focus on restitution, making criminals "pay" for their crimes through a commercial bail system and marketing prisoner's labor. Other subsidiary suggestions accompany these recommendations with explanations of how they might be implemented.
Each recommendation is discussed in some detail and fit together to form Benson's vision of a utopian private justice system. He anticipates "considerable political resistance" to such reforms, and he argues "crime can actually be relatively effectively controlled through the interactions of private buyers and sellers and through various voluntary cooperative arrangements" (p. 315). He submits that one purpose of his book is to give a road map to victims' advocacy groups that they might use to create a criminal justice system more responsively to the "desires of individual crime victims." We must not forget, as we read this book, that it is a criminal justice system, not a victim justice system. It provides a "collective" good that may create some disjuncture between the whims and desires of individual crime victims and overall societal well- being. In my opinion, somewhere along the way in this libertarian treatise the author loses sight of this. Well written and provocative, it should be read by criminal justice professionals and academicians with the perspective that he offers some valid criticisms of the public sector's handling of criminal justice and offers some recommendations that warrant consideration.