Probation and community penalties

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If a member of the public were asked to explain the term ‘probation’ to a visitor from another planet, he or she would as likely as not describe a process of helping offenders. If so, this would result in a considerable amount of teeth gnashing in the headquarters of the National Probation Service where, since its inception in April 2001, considerable efforts have been made to transform the public image of the service. The Probation Service came into being in 1907 as a helping organisation. It arose from an era of tolerance and a desire to reform and rehabilitate those who had fallen from the path of righteousness or at least conformity with the law. McWilliams (1983) describes the role of the early probation pioneers as engaging in ‘special pleading’ with the court, essentially for mercy and a second chance for offenders. With the right guidance and role models alongside work opportunities, ‘deserving’ offenders could be encouraged back into the community as responsible individuals. Offenders were thus regarded as unfortunates, who suffered from a variety of privations or had been led astray by the wrong sort of people. With the right advice and opportunities, they could be redeemed. It is easy therefore to understand where the popular notion of probation officers helping offenders derives from. Yet, for the past two decades at least, concerted efforts have been made to change this perception and reposition the Probation Service as an agency of law enforcement and, more recently, public protection. That so many people still regard the service as something it is striving not to be points us to the continued tension suffered by an organisation that has had to perform a number of tricks and turns to survive a period of penal populism and pessimism which had set in during the early 1970s. In an era where Victorian and Edwardian forgiveness and tolerance for the ‘deserving’ appears increasingly less obvious, the Probation Service has had, in many respects, to change its entire raison d’être. That it still survives as an organisation is testimony to its success in transforming itself, but serious questions remain about the nature of its future existence (Nash, 2001). This chapter will give an overview of this attempted transformation with a particular focus on the work of the Probation Service in supervising community penalties.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe student handbook of criminal justice and criminology
EditorsJohn Munice, David Wilson
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherCavendish Publishing
ISBN (Print)9781859418413
Publication statusPublished - 2004


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