A gift of five shillings from London printer Frederic Rainer to the Church of England Temperance Society in 1876 launched what was to be come the National Probation Service
for England. Rainer hoped that the money would be used to rescue people who fell into crime through drunkenness, regarded as the main social evil of the time and the cause of most petty crime.
That year the society appointed its first special missionary, George Nelson, to Southwark Police Court. The role of the missionary was to deflect petty criminals from the capital’s overflowing prisons at a time when jail was the punishment for first offenders – men, women & children.
Over 30 years later, by which time the Society had 124 missionaries and 19 mission women, the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 laid the foundations of the modern service.
The Act enabled courts to release offenders on probation, introduced a probation order and probation officers, specified officer’s duties, gave powers to convict and sentence for breach of probation and established Probation Rules. By 1908, 763 out of 1,043 courts had a probation officer.
A departmental committee, followed by an Act in 1925, recommended the appointment of full-time officers, proper training and a caseload of 50 – 60. Each petty sessional division became a probation area and the regulation of conditions and duties led to higher uniform standards.
“The pioneers of this most flexible and humane of penal measures can hardly have envisaged the remarkable development which has resulted in some 1,100 whole-time professional probation officers now being employed in England and Wales with upwards of 46,000
probationers of all ages under their supervision.” Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George, October 20, 1954, speaking in London at the opening session of the United Nations European Seminar on Probation.
Change accelerated over the next 50 years. Probation’s work with juvenile offenders diminished in the 1960s, to be balanced by an increase in work with offenders inside or leaving prison. The 1970s saw the introduction of one of probation’s greatest successes – community service (now unpaid work).
By the 1980s drug treatment was top of the government’s agenda and the probation service pioneered the notion of getting offenders into treatement as a way of reducing offending.
The 1990s were a decade of great change. The 1991 Criminal Justice Act introduced the concept of National Standards and the early release of prisoners on licence. Change continued into the new millennium with the establishment of the National Probation Service under its first Director General, Eithne Wallis, in 2001. The 54 probation services were reduced to 42 probation areas, each managed by a probation board.
This was followed, three years later by the establishment of the National Offender
Management Service to oversee both prisons and probation.
More recently, as of April 2010, the publication of the Offender Management Bill will turn boards into trusts and open the provision of services to the voluntary and private sectors.
In 2007, the National Probation Service celebrated a century of cutting crime.