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What works? An in-depth analysis of probation capacity-strengthening

24 April 2024

Against the backdrop of the 6th World Congress on Probation and Parole held in The Hague from 16-18 April 2024, the NHC sat down with Leo Tigges and Stephen Pitts, community-based justice experts and authors of a recently published report on probation service development for the 21st century.

Building on their long experience of international collaboration and a determination to help probation work achieve its full potential, the authors have undertaken a comprehensive study to identify best practices in probation development. The project took place against the background of remarkable European expansion in probation provision in the past 20-25 years. They studied developments in five countries (Albania, Georgia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, together with Additional Country Information on Serbia), and focused on motivations and purposes (enhancing human rights and reducing the number of prisoners often foremost), steps, results, success factors and sometimes hindrances along the way. They also propose actions to promote and support probation globally.

Hear from the authors below.


Leo and Steve, from your extensive study and work in the field, if you had to pinpoint just one indicator – what would you say is the biggest predicting factor for the successful development of a viable probation system in a country? Which basic elements need to be in place in order to ensure success?

This is a difficult question because the 10 success factors cannot be seen separately. One goes together with the other and they reinforce each other. But if we had to choose one, we would mention the second of the 10 factors:

Creating and communicating a shared vision.

This ties in clearly with the first enabler, namely leadership. We have seen in our study that a politician or minister or an individual person within the penal system stands up and says that he or she considers the development of the probation service important and is taking initiatives to start and inspire others – in that way creating a vision for the role of probation. Ideally, it is a combination of the political and civil servant levels, for example a minister and an official from the prison system or someone within the judicial system. What is also important is that these leaders realise that

capacity-building is a long process and that you have to persevere to achieve and sustain the changes.

A lot of probation development and strengthening of probation practices is, when it comes to the work of the NHC at least, inevitably linked to European Union expansion, “as an aspect of humane and decent treatment of those who break the law”, as you say in your report. Do you believe there is a need for more comprehensive EU-level guidelines when it comes to probation development and what should these primarily focus on?

If you look at our 10 success factors, they will quickly strike you as logical and essential. You therefore expect them to be put into practice. The reality is different. Whether at the level of European Institutions, such as the Council of Europe and the European Commission, in guiding or funding probation development, or countries or organisations implementing capacity-building, more focus would be desirable on putting the 10 factors into practice. This would, for instance, allow more focus on the balanced development of the 4 domains of probation; one now sees that, for example, information reports are only produced sparingly in many countries, while they are an extremely good instrument for selecting which persons are best eligible for probation. This attention could also help to counteract the phenomenon of net widening, which means that in many European countries the introduction of probation sanctions has not led to a reduction in the number of prisoners, but that more people have come under the net of justice: prison sentences and probation sanctions.

Last week was marked by the World Congress on Probation hosted by Reclassering Nederland. What were you looking forward to, and looking back, what are your biggest takeaways?

What works in probation capacity-building has – until we started our research project – not been thoroughly investigated. Each implementer (sometimes donors too) may tend to advise and carry out work based on their own experiences gained in their own countries.

We hope that our model, which provides a language to understand the essence of probation and also forms a basis for an analysis of the current state of affairs in a particular country, will be used more widely.

We also hope that the European experiences with capacity-building will be supplemented with experiences of capacity-building outside Europe. We can all learn from each other. In this way, the position of the probation service, both in Europe and in the rest of the world, can gradually become stronger.

What we often see in capacity-building projects is a focus on activities that can be welcomed relatively non-controversially, but which have a limited longer-term impact in comparison to investment if clear choices are not made at a strategic and policy level or if judges and prosecutors are not also involved in the selection and preparation of the probation activities. Too often we see major focus on training probation workers, while the immediate environment of the probation workers does not yet understand their work and working agreements have not been made with the chain partners to integrate probation work into the criminal justice system.

This certainly does not alter the fact that much has been achieved in many countries; good examples include Latvia, Croatia and Georgia. In these countries, probation development has continued systematically over one or two decades; it has been recognised that not everything can be done at the same time and that important work must be spread over several years.

It is about making the right strategic choices to bring about the most favourable conditions and developments for the probation service over a period of time.

Finally, we are optimistic that this World Congress will further strengthen our global community, contributing to stronger probation and parole roles and organisations around the world!

Find out more on the NHC’s work and track record on probation development here.