On 9-10 October, three representatives of PRI – Nikhil Roy, Jenny Clarkin and myself – attended the first ever World Congress on Probation. Organised by the European Organisation for Probation (CEP) and hosted in London, the Congress welcomed over 300 delegates from 50 countries. It was a packed agenda and even documenting the highlights here makes for quite long reading – but don’t switch off – it was full of interesting material!
Opened by the Minister of Justice, Chris Grayling, as UK probation officers protested against the privatisation of the service in the UK, the first day focused on different aspects of community justice and probation. One highlight from the day included Professor Ivo Aertsen discussing restorative justice and how it can help probation develop. He observed how, despite restorative justice being embraced in legislation, in reality it is still a marginal practice on the outskirts of the system and needs to be brought forward as a mainstream element to have a real impact.
On Thursday, we were able to attend a presentation from the Japanese delegation who discussed the work of their Voluntary Probation Officers (VPOs). The probation and parole personnel include 1,000 paid Probation Officers who oversee 48,000 VPOs to supervise and assist offenders and ex-offenders. The State (the ‘official’ Probation Officers) retain the responsibility of case management, risk management, safeguarding the mental and physical health of VPOs and ensuring VPOs are appropriately trained and kept up-to-date in offender management skills. The presentation noted the huge advantage of employing VPOs who have the local community knowledge to be best placed to encourage social reintegration. While VPOs undergo intensive initial training and on-going quarterly training, a few incidents has seen VPOs identifying that they need more support from the formal system to best carry out their duties.
Following this the Thai delegation discussed their work on community justice, identifying a key partnership between the State and the local communities in order to encourage reintegration of offenders. This includes VPOs, of which there are nearly 14,000, who are comprehensively screened and intensively trained and who perform case management and offender supervision. They also have a system of community justice networks and centres (738 centres) which help the Department of Probation to disseminate information, provide basic legal advice, resolve conflicts, provide victim support and promote social justice, but don’t handle individual cases. However, they noted that a huge investment of resources is needed to make these more effective.
The Thai delegation also gave a presentation acknowledging the specific and complex needs of women prisoners and ex-prisoners, a particular problem in Thailand which houses around 40,000 female inmates (33% above capacity). They stated the need for proper alternatives to imprisonment, including developing a gender-sensitive pre-sentence investigation tool and proposals to the court to order a pre-sentence report in every case involving a woman.
Our colleagues and partners from East Africa, Paul Kintu (Commissioner of Community Service, Uganda) and Clement Okech (Assistant Director of Probation and Aftercare Service, Kenya) presented an excellent session, chaired by PRI Associate Rob Allen, discussing the challenges and development of probation in the region, tracing it back to the British-imposed system of justice during the colonial era. Paul stressed the importance of community involvement for successful probation and community service projects and spoke of the need to benchmark and learn from practice in different regions of their own country before looking to their wider region and continent, and before looking at practice from countries with different legislation, infrastructure and resources and trying to import it. Clement spoke of Kenya’s history of probation and its strength moving forward with currently 121 probation stations, each with 3-12 probation officers and a network of 300 VPOs. They are also developing and expanding the idea of probation hostels for low-risk probationers.
Finally, in the last slot of the second day, Nikhil Roy and PRI Associate Zakir Shuaib, discussed the situation in South Asia. They noted the huge problems of capacity, a lack of inter-agency cooperation, punitive attitudes of the public and judiciary, a lack of quality personnel and a lack of awareness among key stakeholders seriously holding back the development of probation. Whilst also highlighting some pockets of good practice, the presentation ended asking whether it is best to invest more in probation in South Asia considering its current serious shortcomings or whether it is best to develop and build on other systems of alternatives to imprisonment including community service, mediation and using traditional justice structures.
Read the summary report from the Congress