How does the probation service work?

The National Probation Service for England and Wales is a statutory Criminal Justice Service, mainly responsible for the supervision of offenders in the community and the provision of reports to the criminal courts to assist them in their sentencing duties. It Had existed in its previous form by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act in April 2001, but has existed since 1907 as a set of area based services interacting at arms-length with central government. Northern Ireland has its own probation service, whilst in Scotland criminal justice social work services are managed within the social work departments of local authorities.

The probation system is undergoing a period of radical change, and until the dust has settled it is difficult to predict what its final structure will be, please look at The future of the service for more details.  Although the structure is unclear, what probation actually does will largely remain unchanged; the only alteration will be who is responsible for the deliver of the service.

The service is part of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which transferred to the Ministry of Justice from the Home Office on 9 May 2007. It comprised 42 probation areas which are identical with police force area boundaries, served by 35 Probation Trusts. Trusts are funded by NOMS and employ all staff except the Chief Officer; they are accountable to their Boards (comprising up to 15 members appointed by the Secretary of State) for day to day operations and financial management, and to NOMS via a Regional Offender Manager, with whom they have service level agreements, for performance against the targets for the offender management and interventions services for which they have been funded. The probation service employs around 20,000 staff and supervises over 200,000 individuals.

The work of Probation Trusts is scrutinised by NOMS, which reports independently to UK Government Ministers; and by HM Inspectorate of Probation.

It was organised into 35 (!) separate trusts all of which have their own board of control. The trusts are: Avon & Somerset, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Cheshire, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Durham Tees Valley, Essex, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Humberside, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire Rutland, Lincolnshire, London, Merseyside, Norfolk & Suffolk, Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Northumbria, South Yorkshire, Staffordshire & West Midlands, Surrey & Sussex, Thames Valley, Wales, Warwickshire, West Mercia, West Yorkshire, Wiltshire and York & North Yorkshire.

What does it do?
Probation trusts are responsible for overseeing offenders released from prison on licence and those on community sentences made by judges and magistrates in the courts. If you are sentenced to under 12 months you are usually releases after 6 month months and the rest of your sentence is “on license”. Your licence will impose certain restrictions on what you can do. The probation service do now get involved with you ( one of the new requirements of the changes in the service which are currently in hand), but what their input will be is unclear at present.

If you sentence is over 12 months you will still, most likely, serve only half your sentence in prison with the balance on license under the supervision of the probation service. You may also be released on tag ( if your sentence is less than 4 years) and this involves an electronically monitored curfew for around 3 months, with the rest of your sentence under the watchful eye of the probation service.

Probation prepares pre-sentence reports for judges and magistrates in the courts to enable them to choose the most appropriate sentence. Probation also works with victims of crimes where the offender has committed a sexual or violent offence and has been given a prison sentence of 12 months or longer.

Probation trusts manage approved premises (hostels) for offenders with a residence requirement on their sentences or licences. Probation staff also work in prisons, assessing offenders, preparing them for release and running offending behaviour programmes.

So, how does the probation service work?

The probation service tries to deliver against its objectives in many ways.

i) Offender Management: Prison sentences are not always the best choice for punishing people, or the best way to make them more responsible. In many cases, a community sentence can give better results. Offender Management is about assessing offenders and their risk to others, planning their supervision (both in the community and in custody if necessary), and making sure that the offender gets support, training or is placed on courses relevant to their needs (interventions).

ii) Reducing Reoffending. Probation to reduce reoffending by working with offenders to change their behaviour. They also deal with those things that may lead them to commit more crimes. It is easiest to consider these under different headings:

iii) Accommodation: If offenders have somewhere to live and they get support, they can live more stable lives. This lets them get to the help they need. There has been a drop of a third in the number of offenders leaving prison without anywhere to live since April 2004.Education, Training and Employment: Offenders often do not have the basic skills they need to find and keep a job. Probation can help people to get those basic reading, writing and maths skills. The number of basic skills qualifications gained by offenders has increased more than ten-fold in two years. More than 10% of adults who gain basic skills qualifications are doing so from prison. We can also help with finding training or getting a job.Health: Offenders often have problems getting health and social care. Primary Care Trusts are now responsible for healthcare in most of our prisons.

iv) Drugs and Alcohol: Abuse of drugs and alcohol is strongly linked to crime. Statistics show that around two thirds of people arrested test positive for drugs. Course are set up treatment courses to deal with alcohol and drug abuse. These make sure that there is early help and ongoing care for offenders under sentence, and support after sentence.

v) Finance, Benefit and Debt: Ex-offenders can face serious money problems, including getting Benefits. The probation service will try to assess an offender’s financial problems quickly, so that they can get help and gain the skills to look after their own finances.

vi) Children and Families: Offenders’ families can be affected by the offender’s behaviour and punishment, but they can also offer support and stability. Probation aim to strengthen family links and support children and families, by getting people support such as parenting skills training. They can help families to keep in better contact with prisoners and to visit them. This can help to reduce reoffending. They will give out information about other support services and we try to develop local community family support and advice services.

vii) Attitudes, Thinking and Behaviour: The Probation Service runs many independently accredited courses about thinking and judging decision making. These courses include general work about offending behaviour and more specialist courses such as for sexual and violent offending, and drug or alcohol abuse.

Offender Interventions
Interventions, or Requirements, are things that an offender must do as part of their sentence in the community. They are set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. We may suggest a number of these when we create an order for the court for an offender. The choice is linked to the seriousness of the offence and to any needs the offender has. This could include getting help for drug addiction, as an example.
The Requirements will include:

UNPAID WORK: Known as Community Payback because of what it does, unpaid work is used as a punishment. The work people do must help communities by improving the local environment. It builds the confidence of the general public in community sentences and it can be a way into work for the offenders.

SUPERVISION: This means that an offender has to have regular meetings with their Offender Manager. He or she will work with them to check on their behaviour and to discuss its effects and causes with them. The Offender Manager will also give counselling, and try to increase the offender’s motivation. They will try to make sure that the offender completes all the requirements they have been given by the court.

ACCREDITED PROGRAMME: Some offenders have to go on courses (programmes). These programmes deal with behaviour such as general offending, violence or sex offending.

They also look at drug or alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

DRUG REHABILITATION: Drug treatment aims to reduce or end dependency on drugs. The offender is required to take tests for drug use and to attend an accredited programme. A Requirement can last between 6 months and three years.

ALCOHOL TREATMENT: Alcohol treatment aims to reduce or end dependency on alcohol. It is combined with Supervision, to support and reinforce rehabilitation. A Requirement can last between 6 months and three years.

MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT: The offender is required to submit to treatment by, or under the direction of, a medical practitioner and/or a chartered psychologist. Treatment may be as a resident patient or at a care home or hospital. This Requirement is combined with Supervision to support and reinforce rehabilitation.

RESIDENCE: The offender must live at an address chosen by the court. This can be either an Approved Premise (hostel) or a private address.

SPECIFIED ACTIVITY: Activity Requirements can be used for a wide range of activities, from day centre type activities to education, and reparation to victims or persons affected by the offending (specifically mentioned in the Act). Their use allows participation in the specific activity to be explicitly included in the Pre Sentence Report and Sentence Plan. This Plan helps to ensure offenders are clear about the expectations placed upon them, and the intentions of the Court can be clearly enforced. Potential activities include Education, Training and Employment, Compliance, and Mediation between the offender and the victim or persons affected by the offending.

PROHIBITED ACTIVITY: This requirement bans the offender from taking part in certain activity or activities. This could include a ban on entering a particular public house or attending a football match.

EXCLUSION: This requirement bans the offender from entering a specified place or places for a period of up to two years. This could include keeping way from the area around a victim’s home or workplace, or staying out of a particular area of town to prevent public order offences.

CURFEW: This is supported by electronic monitoring. The offender must wear a tag. This is a bracelet around the ankle with a wireless connection to a sensor in the home. The offender must stay at a specified address between certain hours of the day or night. The curfew can be from two hours and up to sixteen hours per day. Orders last for a maximum of twelve months.

ATTENDANCE CENTRE: This requirement is for offenders aged between 18 and 24 years. They must go to an Attendance Centre on Saturday for 3 hours. At the Centre the offender looks at their offending behaviour in an organised way. This also reduces the offender’s free time at the weekend.

Public Protection: There are sexual and violent offenders in every community. They can be any age, gender or ethnicity and they can hold any position in society. Probation is charged with trying to protecting the public by stopping these people committing further offences. They will do this in conjunction with the Police and other agencies including Youth Offending Services, Jobcentre Plus, local education authorities, local housing authorities, registered social landlords, social services, strategic health authorities, care trusts and NHS trusts, and providers of electronic monitoring

Working With Victims: The Home Office reviewed the Victim’s Charter as part of the move to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. As a result, they replaced it with the Victim’s Code of Practice. This document gives victims of crime statutory rights for the first time. The Code of Practice for Victims became law in April 2006. Probation staff must contact victims or victims’ families whenever the court sentences an offender to a prison sentence of 12 months or more for a violent or sexual offence. This includes cases where they are given a life sentence. The staff speak with the victim about any concerns they have with the proposed release of the offender and this is sent in a written report containing the victim’s views to the parole board. They look at this when they are considering an offender for release. Probation staff who work with victims DO NOT have any involvement with the offender.

Working in Courts: Probation work with both Magistrates courts and Crown courts and write reports about the people charged with an offence. These are called Pre Sentence Reports, or PSRs. They help the Magistrates and Judges decide on the most suitable and effective sentence to give. To write a report, they get details of the case from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and then interview the defendant about their lifestyle, home and work situation, and about the alleged crime (offence). They talk about the defendant’s attitude to the offence and to any sentence suggested. This is because the individual involved may have to agree to work hard at a suggested course such as one that helps deal with their alcohol or drug abuse. The probation service can also advise the CPS on the suitability of the offender for bail.

The courts have three choices when considering bail. They can:-
(1) refuse bail – in which case the person is kept locked up (remanded in prison)
(2) agree bail without any special conditions
(3) or agree bail under certain conditions, such as having to stay at an approved premise (hostel).

PRE-SENTENCE REPORTS (PSRs):These provide information about the offender and the offence(s) committed. It can take up to 10 days to get all the information together to write a Standard Delivery Report.
The report includes:
i) an review of the offence
ii) an assessment of the offender
iii) as assessment of the risk of harm to the public from the offender
iv) as assessment of the likelihood the offender reoffending

FAST DELIVERY REPORTS (FDRs): These written reports are given to the courts on the same day, or within 5 working days. This helps to speed up the sentencing process. They are similar to full PSRs but have less detail. These shorter reports are made where the circumstances of the offence are simple and where the court is considering a straightforward sentence.

ORAL REPORTS: These reports are given verbally to the courts on the same day. This helps to speed up the sentencing process. They are similar to FDRs but have less detail. These shorter reports are made where the circumstances of the offence are very straightforward and where the court is considering a straightforward sentence.

Approved Premises. An Approved Premise is a hostel run by the probation service. It is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Offenders live in approved premises because:
(1)The court has ordered them to as a condition of bail
(2) It is a requirement of a community order because the court believes that they need more supervision or a settled address
(3) it is a condition of their release from prison.
These offenders are not free to come and go as they please. They have to follow strict rules and there is a curfew. This is usually from 11 pm to 7 am. Staff keep a close watch on residents and rooms are checked hourly throughout the night. Staff have direct contact with the Police if needed. Probation staff will work closely with the residents and have the opportunity to influence positive change in them and prevent reoffending. Those people in hostels also have to meet the other requirements of their Community Order or Release Order. This could include them attending group work programmes or training projects.

Working in Prisons
While someone is in prison they will deal with the probation officer in the prison. The prison probation officer will

  •   collect information and write risk assessments on those who are being considered for early release.
  •   work on the accommodation for prisoners
  •   provide advice to foreign nationals
  •   help towards getting down the risk of prisoner’s self harming
  •   help prison staff to prepare sentence plans
  •   run courses with groups of prisoners that try to deal with their offending behaviour.
  •   work with voluntary and specialist organisations which offer advice and support to prisoners
  •   work with the probation staff outside prison who supervise prisoners after they are released

Most prisoners do not serve the whole of their sentence in prison. At a certain point, they are released to serve the rest of their sentence in the community. People sentenced to less than a year in prison are released after serving half their sentence. They are not supervised. People sent to prison for between one and four years are released on licence after half the sentence. They are then dealt with by the probation service until their sentence time is finished. People sent to prison for four years or more can be released on parole after serving half their sentence. They are automatically released on licence anyway after they have served two-thirds of their sentence. The Probation Service also deals with these people.


How Probation Works