When is an offender not an offender?

AuthorErin Donohue,Dawn Moore
Published date01 July 2009
Date01 July 2009
Subject MatterArticles
When is an offender not
an offender?
Power, the client and shifting penal
University of Ottawa, Canada and Carleton University, Canada
Despite the torrent of the punitive state, people in conflict with the law are made up as
‘clients’ of criminal justice. This article looks curiously upon the figure of the client,
positioning her as a translation of the offender who flags particular relationships of
justice. While the client is nowhere to be found on the public face of punishment, she
emerges in the most unlikely of places (prisons, courts) when looking at punishment’s
inner workings. The client, we argue, is born of the elision of managerial and
consumerist discourses in order to recruit people in conflict with the law and justice
workers into contemporary penal project. The subject positions of criminal justice actors
(offenders and workers) are reframed such that they are all active agents in the practice
of social service delivery. These translations reveal the fluidity of identities and relation-
ships within the criminal justice system and teach us about the political strategies
underlying differing argots of punishment.
Key Words
agency • consumerism • managerialism • punitive turn • rehabilitation
This article is about recasting people in conflict with the law as clients of criminal justice
institutions. Clients are not an entirely new species in the territory of criminal
justice but they are not well explored, especially in their current iteration. Specifically,
we are interested in how and why offenders are translated into clients through particu-
lar relationships. The client and the offender are characters of the criminal justice system
(CJS) with divergent subjectivities. Offenders are wanton and hopeless, better ware-
housed on account of their dangerousness. They are the objects of punishment harken-
ing back to classic retributive notions currently enjoying reinvigorated popularity in the
Copyright © The Author(s), 2009.
Reprints and permissions:
1462-4745; Vol 11(3): 319–336
DOI: 10.1177/1462474509334174
industrialized world. Clients, on the other hand, are consumers of the social services
offered (mandated) through the CJS. They are active participants in their own punish-
ment and correction because they are choice making, free subjects.
We turn to the prominent narratives of managerialism and consumerism to under-
stand better the constitution of the client. While these discourses have thus far been
treated as parallel but mostly independent storylines of contemporary penal strategies,
we argue that they collude in making up the client. This collusion assembles a powerful
apparatus of punishment, one that not only organizes relationships and goals of criminal
justice, but also casts criminal justice workers and subjects alike in positive and produc-
tive roles. The end result imbues CJS actors (both workers and people in conflict with
the law) with a relationship specific form of agency that is designed to emancipate all
involved from the repressiveness of ‘get tough’ penal strategies.
To better understand the client we begin with a cursive depiction of what she is not:
the offender. Our goal here is to use the offender to assist in extracting the juxta-
positions inherent to the client’s existence. A subsequent character sketch of the client
traces her origins in the penal welfare state and describes her current manifestations in
a range of criminal justice venues. We are careful here not to see offenders and clients as
different people. Instead, we follow Foucault (1977), to see these characters as different
subjectivities who exist in the same body and whose expressions are dependent on the
relationships, locations and actions of the individual. We then consider how the client
is constituted through the intersection of managerial and consumptive discourses. Here
we pay attention to the work done by the client in shifting penal subjectivities such that
people in conflict with the law, as well as criminal justice personnel, are recruited into
practices of punishment through the erasure of the punitive goals of the system in favour
of a reinvention of criminal justice as venue for delivering social services.
There is no client on the public face of punishment. The terrain of criminal justice viewed
by the average citizen features only one character: the offender (who also goes by the
aliases ‘inmate’ and ‘prisoner’).1The offender found in this public discourse is a particu-
lar kind of character who is ultimately actionless once sanctioned, whittled down to an
object of punishment.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a speech introducing tougher legis-
lation to respond to child sex offenders, gives us a clue as to the nature of the offender.
Schwarzenegger (2005) states, ‘Today we are making it perfectly clear to all the cowards
who want to victimize innocent Californians: we will stop you, we will catch you and
we will punish you.’ The offender depicted in Schwarzenegger’s speech recollects age old
tropes of the menacing villain who preys on the vulnerable. This offender is worthy of
punishment, not help and is the target of public rage, hostility and ostracism. There is
nothing in this depiction suggesting that these offenders are salvageable let alone trans-
formable into anything remotely resembling a liberal citizen. Most Canadian and
American public references are not as explicit as Schwarzenegger’s but share the senti-
ment that offenders are subordinated, not emancipated.
The Canadian federal government’s latest anti-crime website, Tackling Crime
(www.tacklingcrime.ca) is made up of descriptions of getting tough on offenders. The

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