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The National Probation Service for England and Wales is a statutory Criminal Justice Service, mainly responsible for the supervision of offenders in the community and the provision of reports to the criminal courts to assist them in their sentencing duties. It was established in its current form by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act in April 2001, but has existed since 1907 as a set of area based services interacting at ever-shortening arms-length with central government. Northern Ireland has its own probation service, whilst in Scotland criminal justice social work services are managed within the social work departments of local authorities.

In its current form, the NPS is part of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) previously within the Home Office but since 9 May 2007 within the Ministry of Justice, and comprises 42 probation areas which are coterminous with police force area boundaries. Areas are funded by NOMS and employ all staff except the Chief Officer; they are accountable to their Boards (comprising up to 15 members appointed by the Secretary of State) for day to day operations and financial management, and to NOMS via a Regional Offender Manager, with whom they have service level agreements, for performance against the targets for the offender management and interventions services for which they have been funded.

The work of probation areas is scrutinised by HM Inspectorate of Probation, which reports independently to UK Government Ministers.

The Service, at the start of 2004, had some 18,000 staff. Statistics for the year 2002 state that it supervised just less than 193,000 offenders and provided 253,000 Pre Sentence Reports to courts in England and Wales, advising them on the background of and proposing appropriate sentences for convicted offenders. In addition, it has responsibility for ensuring that victims of violent and sexual crime resulting in prison sentences of over 12 months are consulted before offenders are released from custody.

The advent of NOMS in 2004 changed the pattern of correctional services delivery in England and Wales. The Offender Management Bill, introduced in Parliament late in 2006, was intended to enable some probation areas to become trusts as part of wider Government policy to open up the provision of correctional services to greater competition from the voluntary, community, and private sectors. This was one of the recommendations of the Carter Report (2003): others were to introduce a system of end-to-end offender management, with one named offender manager having responsibility for an offender throughout his or her sentence (be it in custody, the community, or both), and to rebalance sentencing in order to redress the drift towards less and less serious offences resulting in imprisonment or community sentences. Carter saw the need to improve public and sentencer confidence not only in community sentences but also in the fine as credible sanctions for appropriate offenders and offences.

The Bill completed its passage through parliament in July 2007, and the first six probation trusts came into being on 1 April 2008 (Merseyside, South Wales, Humberside, Dyfed/Powys, West Mercia and Leicestershire & Rutland).

The probation service reached its 100th anniversary intact, but the Government's commitment to a wider range of provider agencies seems destined to result in probation areas' current monopoly over their present range of services coming to an end in due course; whilst concessions made during the passage of the Bill saw Offender Management remaining in the public sector for at least three years - with any subsequent change to this position requiring affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament - it seems likely that Interventions will be subject to greater competition in the immediate future.

The first wave of the new Probation Trusts enjoy greater freedoms as a result of having demonstrated that they were robust organisations capable of delivering to high standards of performance and efficiency. Trusts and continuing Boards alike will have a larger role in the local commissioning of services from the private, voluntary and community sectors, again as a result of changes to the Bill during its passage through Parliament. They will all still have to deliver on their own contractual obligations to their Regional Offender Manager.

More seismic change befell the probation service as a result of the Secretary of State's announcement in January 2008 that the Her Majesty's Prison Service (HMPS) was, in effect, to take over the national level management of the National Probation Service within a revamped National Offender Management Service whose Chief Executive was to be Phil Wheatley, the previous Director General of HMPS. Most of the previous board of HMPS assume similar roles within the new board of NOMS. A separate and distinct voice for probation has therefore been lost given the demise of the National Probation Directorate and the passing of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, which had morphed into the Probation Boards Association in 2001 and had become an increasibngle disgrunted mouthpiece for disaffected probation boards rather than a vehicle for the professional perspective of the probation services managers.

History

The Church of England Temperance Society and other voluntary societies appointed missionaries to the London Police Courts during the late nineteenth century. From this developed the system of releasing offenders on the condition that they kept in touch with the missionary and accepted guidance. In 1907 this supervision was given a statutory basis which allowed courts to appoint and employ probation officers.[1]

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