The Early History of Probation

The Brehon Laws in Ireland, from very early times, placed great emphasis on the local management of offenders, especially in their family and community groupings. British Common Law uses the principle of release on recognizance or binding over (promising to be of good behaviour) from very early times. It is not clear at which precise stage the idea arises to combine personal supervision with binding over. Early 19th Century There was little evidence of anything like probation, however, until the early nineteenth century. It emerges as a system in a number of jurisdictions around the same time, both in Europe and North America. 1820:The introduction in Britain of personal supervision starts with a number of experimental measures by Warwickshire magistrates in 1820, particularly with young offenders. 1841: Probation is first “named” by a Boston shoemaker, John Augustus, who works with the Washington Total Abstinence Society. Beginning in 1841, he visits Boston police court and does pre-trial enquiries on drunken offenders initially, but later with other offenders too. This evolves into what becomes known as the ‘Massachusetts scheme.’ This first systematic example of probation supervision, begun in 1869, was seen as highly successful. 1876: Frederick Rainer, a printer from Hertfordshire (England), wants to help the large numbers of individuals appearing for alcohol-related offending before the London police courts. He gives a donation to the Church of England Temperance Society to fund a response. The Society appoints a ‘police court missionary’, whose task is to interview drunks in the court cells, evaluate which of them is likely to respond to help, and suggest to the court a plan for putting the offender on the ‘straight and narrow’. The missionary undertakes to supervise and support the offender through rehabilitation. 1900: By 1900 the number of police court missionaries has grown to 119, with a number working in towns and cities outside London and catering to an increasing variety of offenders. 1881: The House of Lords rejects a Bill which would provide for the release of certain offenders under supervision while on bail. 1887: The Probation of First Offenders Act,1887 allows courts to release certain (relatively minor) offenders ‘on probation.’ This Act provides for friendly supervision by some authority to whom the offender would has to report, who in turn reports to the court. However, no formal machanism for the supervision of the probationer is set up. It is left to the court missionaries and other volunteers to do their best without legal sanctions to enforce co-operation. 1907: The Probation of Offenders Act,1907 introduces a structured statutory provision for supervision of offenders, provision for the appointment of Probation Officers and their payment from local funds. The 1907 Act forms the basis and bedrock of probation practice in both Britain and Ireland as we know it. 1914: The Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1914 amends and updates the 1907 Act, by strenghtening the way it operates and provides for the recognition of voluntary probation societies.

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The Probation Service is an Agency of the Department of Justice and Equality