Probation Accountability: How It's Handled in England and Wales

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Probation agencies face difficult challenges in today's climate of resource cutbacks and increasing work-loads. They also face another difficulty - the public's demand that probation agencies be accountable for the work they do. Administrators have become increasingly interested in developing schemes that will enable them to live up to the public's desire for accountability. In light of this, some are looking overseas for possible models.

On Dec. 4, 1995, I visited the home office in London, England, to interview Graham Smith, Her Majesty's inspector of probation, to learn how the British deal with accountability issues. According to Smith, the Inspectorate of Probation is a division of the home office that reports independently to elected government officials on the performance of probation agencies in England and Wales. The funding for England's and Wales' 55 probation districts is shared between the home office, which funds 80 percent of the costs, and the local authority, which contributes the remaining 20 percent. Under this arrangement, the inspectorate is responsible for ensuring compliance with home office policies and priorities and for continuously improving performance.

The inspectorate ensures that local probation agencies economically, efficiently and effectively carry out statutory obligations; that they meet national standards for the supervision of offenders; and that they reduce offending and protect the public through intensive supervision of high- risk offenders.

Although the home office has no direct control over local probation agencies, it does exercise influence through the regulations it promulgates. It also can reduce funding if particular agencies do not comply with national standards and policies.

The inspectorate conducts three distinct types of inspections. The first - individual inspection of the local probation area - occurs once every four years. The inspectorate makes public the results of the inspections in a written report. Smith noted that publishing the reports formed "part of the accountability scheme" envisioned by the home office.

The second form of inspection, which occurs every year, involves four thematic studies that are selected for review over the entire probation system. For example, Smith indicated that the inspectorate recently has focused on "probation orders with requirements for psychiatric treatment, the quality of pre-sentence reports for the Court, community service orders and supervision of dangerous offenders in the community." These reports, which also are made public, can be effective instruments for change or improvement in services provided, as well as vehicles to record probation successes.

The final type of inspection relates to special inquiries into high profile issues affecting the probation service. According to Smith, the issues vary and usually deal with "concern about aspects of service delivery that are raised at the government level by other areas of the justice system or the public." As with other reports, these too are made public.

This system of inspecting and reporting provides an opportunity to educate the public and legislators about probation. Generally, the inspectorate has found that probation in England and Wales is an effective and economic community-based service that reduces offending and increases public safety.

Commenting on the future, Smith noted that although the system faces increased fiscal pressures, it needs to increase its effectiveness and continue to respect the demand for public openness. Smith stressed that because probation in England and Wales is being used more frequently, the major challenge will be to remain effective without reducing the quality of service.

Graham was very optimistic about the future of England's and North America's probation services. One reason for his optimism is the general acknowledgment that the "nothing works" viewpoint has been proven untrue and that new ways of assessing research in this field have shown impressive results in suggesting probation services' role in reducing recidivism. …