Special Report 46 - The Probation and Welfare Service Summary

Published on 12 January 2004

The Probation and Welfare Service (the Service) is an operational agency within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (the Department). It has a staff of just over 320, working mainly in community-based teams, or in prisons and places of detention. The Service also employs contract staff to oversee unpaid community service work carried out by offenders.

The main functions of the Service in the criminal justice system are to

  • prepare reports at the request of judges, to assist them in deciding on appropriate sentences for offenders
  • supervise offenders subject to community-based sanctions ordered by the courts
  • plan and assist in the rehabilitation of offenders in prisons or other places of detention.
  • In addition, the Service funds a large number of schemes and programmes that provide education, accommodation, treatment and counselling services for offenders under supervision in the community. Total expenditure by the Service in 2002 was just over €32 million. In 2003, around €40.7 million was provided for the Service.

This examination focused on the operations of the Service over the period 1995 to 2002. In particular, it examined how well the Service has addressed

  • the demands for its outputs
  • the efficiency of its operations
  • the effectiveness of the services it delivers.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform established an Expert Group to review the Service in 1998. Some of the recommendations of the Expert Group, set out in two reports published in 1998 and 1999, have been partly or fully implemented. The Government decided to postpone implementation of certain other recommendations until this examination was completed.

Service Delivery

The level of demand in the criminal justice system for all of the Service’s main outputs — reports to courts, supervision in the community and assistance to offenders in custody — increased significantly in the period 1995 to 2002. Staff numbers increased by around one third in 2001/2002 in response to the increased demand.

In 2002, there were around 4,100 persons under supervision in the community, compared to a daily average of around 3,200 prisoners in custody — a ratio of around 1.3:1. This examination found that there was no significant change in the relative use of community-based sanctions and custodial sentences between 1995 and 2002. While the estimated total number of persons under supervision increased by half, there was a similar increase in the estimated average prison population. The 1999 Expert Group report suggested that, in line with practice in other jurisdictions, there should be more scope for judges to impose community-based sanctions, relative to custodial sentencing.

Community-based sanctions were originally developed as a means of providing judges with an increased range of options when imposing sentences on offenders. More recently, the concept of imposing a custodial sentence followed by a period of supervision has been developed, in the context of dealing with sex offenders.

Some of the main activities the Service carries out in the criminal justice system are not based on statutory powers. For example, almost half of offenders referred for supervision in 2000 were supervised by the Service without formal court orders being made — in these cases, sentence is deferred by the judge for a stated period. Most reports to courts are also provided on a non-statutory basis.

In contrast to its carrying out of non-statutory functions in the criminal justice area, the Service did not discharge functions in the family law area, for which there is a statutory basis, in the period 1995 to 2002. Up to 1995, the Service provided some support in family law cases, but this was suspended because of demands in the criminal justice area. Following the increase in staff levels in recent years, the Service has agreed to provide some support for family law courts on a one-year pilot basis.

Efficiency of Community-Based Work

Less than 10% of the cost of the Service in 2001 related to work in prisons and other places of detention. The balance was applied in carrying out community-based work — mainly providing reports to assist the courts, and supervision of offenders in the community.

Community-based teams provide reports, at the request of judges, about the suitability of the available community-based sanctions for persons found guilty of offences. The estimated cost to the Service in 2001 of providing an individual pre-sentence report averaged around €800 to €900. Following receipt of reports, judges may make an order referring the case for supervision by the Service, or may decide to impose a custodial sentence.

The nature, intensity and average duration of the different types of supervision varies and has different cost implications. Based on spending in 2001, implementing orders for supervision cost an estimated average of €1,500 for each community service order, €4,100 for supervision of an offender during deferment of penalty and €6,100 for supervision of an offender subject to a probation order.

The suitability of a community-based sanction in the case of an individual offender is a matter for the relevant judge. However, because community-based sanctions are significantly less costly to implement than custodial sentences, the availability of a community-based sanction at the point of sentencing provides a more economic option in suitable cases. For example, based on 2001 spending, it is estimated that implementing community service orders costs about one-third of the cost of implementing the custodial sentences that might otherwise be imposed.

There may be scope for more efficient use of the resources currently devoted to court duty. Probation and Welfare Officers routinely attend District Court hearings to receive requests for reports and referrals for supervision, and to deliver previously requested reports. This attendance absorbed an estimated 13% of the available professional main grade resources of the Service. The Service and the Courts Service should jointly examine arrangements for routine communication of court referrals for supervision and requests for reports, to see if rostered court duty can be reduced.

While acknowledging that many factors influence caseloads, the significant caseload variations between community-based teams noted during the examination may be worth investigating further from the point of view of optimum deployment of staff resources.

Work in Prisons and Places of Detention

The intended role of Service staff working with offenders in custody has changed in recent years. Previously, the role involved a significant degree of provision of assistance to offenders with welfare problems. The aim increasingly is to motivate offenders, who work with Service staff on a voluntary basis, to address their offending behaviour and use their time in custody constructively. Service staff are reducing their output of counselling sessions with individual prisoners and are involved more, working with Prison Service staff and with other disciplines, in structured group work with prisoners.

The cost of the Service’s work in prisons and places of detention in 2001 averaged around €750 per offender. This reflects the fact that the ratio of prisoners to Probation and Welfare Officers was significantly higher than the Service’s target ratio. In October 2002, the ratio was 87 prisoners per Probation and Welfare Officer, compared to a target of 50:1 generally, and 30:1 for special category prisoners, such as young offenders, prisoners serving life sentences and sex offenders. These target ratios take account of the fact that some offenders choose not to make contact with the Service during their time in custody.

Because there is no automated case recording system in use in the Service, the extent to which offenders in custody avail of Service assistance cannot readily be identified. While the Service aims for early intervention with offenders in custody, it doesn’t monitor its response time.

Managing Service Performance

Performance reporting is not well developed in the Service. Performance measurement systems needed to allow it to report its performance or to evaluate its effectiveness are not in place. The Service has no system for producing routine management information. Information and communications systems in the Service have been poorly developed, but projects to computerise the Service and to develop a case tracking system are now well advanced. In developing its management strategy for the future, the Service should make provision for periodic evaluation of its own performance.

The ultimate objective of the Service, in both its community-based work and work with offenders in custody, is to reduce the level of re-offending as much as possible. Neither the Department — which oversees the operation of the criminal justice system — nor the Service has carried out research into rates of re-offending and the relative effectiveness of custodial sentences and community-based sanctions in Ireland. The results of this kind of research would assist the Service in preparing advisory reports for judges. It should also help to inform and provide assurance to the public that the work done by the Service is having the desired effect.