Date : 25/01/2021 | Time : 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm |
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Though the probation service supervises 240,000 people in England and Wales at any one time – three times as many as are held in our prisons – it gets far less attention in the news and popular culture. This is a shame as the history and culture of the probation service is very different from the prison service and equally deserving of attention. Though probation was first put on a statutory footing in the 1907 Probation Act by the great reforming Liberal government of 1906, the service had its roots in Victorian philanthropy, in particular in the ‘court missionary work’ of the Church of England Temperance Society from the 1870s and their work with those brought before the Police Courts for drunkenness offences.
But fittingly, for a talk to a Harkness audience, there was also a strong early American influence on the early English probation approach, with the Massachusetts model, developed by the Boston cobbler, John Augustus, crossing the Atlantic in the 1880s in an early example of policy transfer. Over the past 150 years, the role and organisation of the probation service has evolved significantly as it has taken on new functions and lost older ones and has moved from being a local service of the courts to being very much a national function of government.
With the service about to go through another significant reform in June 2021, this is a good time to reflect on that history and to speculate about its future too. How much of the original 1907 mission of the service to ‘advise, assist and befriend‘ those coming before the Courts still remains? And is it still relevant to the world probation operates in today?
Justin Russell is the Chief Inspector of Probation and was a Harkness Fellow from 1994-5, based at UC Berkeley where he spent a year looking at drug abuse programmes for people going through the criminal justice system. This experience led to a career working on criminal justice policy, including as a special adviser to two Home Secretaries (Jack Straw and John Reid) and as a Senior Policy Adviser to Tony Blair in the No. 10 Policy Unit. He has also been Head of the Home Office Violent Crime Unit and was Director General for Prisons and Probation Policy at the Ministry of Justice from 2016 to the end of 2018.
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