PROBATION. The probation system, in penology, is an attempt to reform a prisoner outside prison, a special kind of warder-the probation officer-supervising the prisoner in the prisoner's own home. The state of Massachusetts in America was the first to attempt “probation,” and at first (1878) in a tentative manner. As success crowned the efforts of the reformers the system was developed and applied to an increasing number of cases; and gradually other American states followed with some variations in their plans. The probation officers attend the court and the judge officially gives up the prisoner to the officer chosen to supervise him, generally explaining to the prisoner that, if he is not obedient to all the rules made for him by the officer, he will be returned to court and prison will be his fate. An officer generally has from sixty to eighty cases under his care. Women officers are in charge of women and boys and girls under eighteen. A probation officer has a special area of the town allotted to him and usually gets all prisoners from that area. He acquires an intimate knowledge of the physical, economic and social surroundings in which his prisoner lives. He is therefore well fitted to watch him and to help him to become once more a decent citizen. He gradually gives him back his liberty and removes restrictions until he is capable of living a decent life alone. The powers of the probation officer are necessarily very great. The prisoner continues his work as before, but the officer visits his factory or workshop and arranges to receive his wages each week, passing over the greater part of them to the wife to keep up the home, giving a very small sum to the prisoner for personal expenses, and retaining a small sum, which is paid back to the prisoner when he becomes a free man.
The advantages claimed for the probation system are these, that a number of independent well-paid probation officers, chosen for their knowledge of human nature and their skill in reforming it, can give personal attention to individual cases; the stigma of prison is avoided, and while great care is taken that the prisoner shall be strictly controlled and effectively restrained, his self-respect is carefully developed; the family benefits, the home is not broken up, the wages still come in, and if the prisoner is a mother and a wife, it is, of course, most important that she should retain her place in the home; the prisoner does not “lose his job” nor his mechanical skill if he is a skilled workman. Lastly, the system is far cheaper than imprisonment. The prisoner keeps himself and his family, and one officer can attend to from 60 to 80 prisoners.
In the United Kingdom the probation system has been applied to young offenders by the Prevention of Crime Act 1908. That act empowered the prison commissioners to place offenders on licence from the Borstal Institution (see Juvenile Offenders) at any time after six months (in the case of a female, three months), if satisfied that there was a reasonable probability of their abstaining from crime and leading a useful and industrious life. The condition of their release is that they be placed under the supervision or authority of some society or person (named in the licence) willing to take charge of the case. This is, of course, only a limited application of the system of probation, for those detained in a Borstal Institution are offenders between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one who have been convicted of an indictable offence. It does not apply to those of full age, nor to those under twenty-one years of age who have been committed to prison for minor offences. It has been long held by English prison reformers that young persons under the age of twenty-one should not be committed to prison, unless for serious offences, but that they should be put under some system of probation. Legislation to this effect was foreshadowed by the home secretary in his speech on prison reform in the House of Commons on the 20th of July 1910.