Probation is an alternative sanction to custody. It is a significant feature of Irish criminal justice. The numbers of persons on probation generally significantly exceed the number of persons in custody.

Probation legislation dates from the beginning of the 20th century. The Probation of Offenders Act provides an alternative to conviction

Probation has a more informal, 19th century background. Voluntary societies sought to provide care for and supervise minor offenders, commonly those with alcoholic addiction problems.

On establishment of the State, the Probation Services consisted has a very small staff. The voluntary bodies continued to play a role until the 1970s. They included, in particular the Salvation Army, the Society of Vincent de Paul and Legion of Mary and the Protestant Discharged Prisoners Aid Organisation who sought to assist and befriend prisoners.

A 1969 Department of Justice review recommended the expansion of the role and number of Probation and Welfare Officers. The Probation and Welfare Service was made available throughout the State in 1972. From that time onwards, the rate of referral increased significantly.

The Probation Services was reorganised on a regional basis and became the Probation and Welfare Service in 1980. By the end of the millennium, by the end of the century and by the year 2000 there were approximately 150 Probation and Welfare Officers in the Service.

Assistance and Rehabilitation

The 1907 Act provides that probation officers are to advice, assist and befriend offenders. What is the actual work of the Service has changed very significantly over time. In the early years of the State, emphasis was placed on the religious elements of rehabilitation. In its modern formats, since the 1970s, the Service provides social work services and assistance for offenders.

The modern philosophy of the Probation and Welfare Service is to seek to direct offenders from crime and rehabilitate them. Treatment programmes and diversion programmes were established, although their success was in some areas, quite limited.

The more modern approach seeks to identify the risk of reoffending and match the level of treatment with it. It seeks to deal with needs of person, support persons, address issues and problems that maintain persons with offending behaviour patterns, in other areas of their lives. It seeks to assist with addiction and unemployment. It seeks to assist persons in changing their outlook, thinking, and behaviour through cognitive behavioural techniques.


The Probation and Welfare Service is part of the Department of Justice. It is a branch of the Department and operates independently. It does not have a separate legal existence. It is funded through the Prisons Vote.

Teams comprise approximately six officers headed by a senior officer. They are allocated in accordance with geographical areas and detention centres. Certain teams specialise areas. The principal Probation and Welfare Officer is the head of the Service and below there are a number of senior officers to whom Senior Probation and Welfare Officers report.

The Welfare Service undertakes a number of key functions:

  • preparation of pre-sanction and review reports to assist courts in sentencing;
  • supervision of offenders in the community, including in the context of community service supervision, temporary release;
  • welfare services to offenders in prisons and detention centers, services relating to special projects;
  • Family Court assessments and the adoption matters.

Assessment Reports

The Service provides over 6000 reports annually for pre-sanction assessments. The purpose is to assist judges in the consideration of custodial sentences. Offenders may be referred for progress reports during sentence.

There are guidelines on the preparation of reports for court. They consider the offender’s background and his attitude to crime, motivation to address offending behaviour and other issues. The courts will generally look favourably at adopting proposals in the reports and plans for dealing with offenders while having regard to the other factors relevant to the sentence.

The PWS guidelines in relation to community services orders, guides in the preparation of reports in relation on to the suitability of the offender for community service. Relevant considerations include permanency o residence, sufficient free time, health, psychiatric health, emotional issues, motivation, alcohol and drugs issues records of violence or misbehaviour and, work record.


Historically, the probation’s primary purpose was rehabilitative. The Services is intended to be available to supervise and assist the rehabilitation of offenders.

The court may discharge conditionally an offender who gives an undertaking to be of good behaviour for a specified time and to follow the advice and direction of a probation officer under a probation order. The condition attaching to the probation order requires the persons to be of good behaviour, not to associate with thieves and other undesirable persons, not to frequent undesirable places, lead an honest and industrial life and abstain from intoxicating liquor.

The terms reflect the era of the legislation in which the legislation was enacted.  Additional conditions may be imposed such as attending treatment, addiction services, residence, payment of compensation.

Probation Officers

Probation Officers supervise conduct or behaviour of all offenders, under orders under the supervision of the court. Probation officers are to visit and receive reports from the persons concerned to see that they are following the conditions of their recognisance. They are to report to the court in relation to their behaviour. They are to assist and befriend and endeavour where possible to find suitable employment.

The requirement to be assist and befriend the offender. This, in effect, involves the social work element of probation done under the terms of the probation order.

Case work with the offender is the traditional core aspect of probation supervision. A programme should be negotiated with the offender and agreed. Traditional, so-called unfocused case work and counseling have been criticised as ineffective.

Probation offenders with problems such as alcohol, and drug addiction, child abuse, mental illnesses, personality disorders and severe social and housing problems make the task challenging.

The probation officer is obliged to apply to court if the probationer does not comply with its condition. A warrant may be issued for his arrest which is executed by the Gardai.

Probation and Programmes

Probation may arise at an interim stage in proceedings. Judges may adjourn cases and release an offender on bail pending a full assessment and presentencing report, and with a view to monitoring progress pending the sentencing date. It may, where appropriate assess the feasibility of a community service sanction.

Adjournments on the basis of a recognisance entered by the offender requiring maintenance of a particular place of residence, cooperation, attendance for treatment and other conditions. These may be similar in structure to final order with probation conditions but may be made on an informal basis.

The Probation Services have operated an intensive probation supervision programme in the main urban areas of Dublin and Cork since the early 1990. They are alternatives to imprisonment for young adults who are serious or repeat offenders. Funding comes from the Irish Youth Foundation Service and the Educations and Training Boards.

The programmes are an alternative to imprisonment. Offenders are accountable to the court during the programme and subject to supervision and the possibility of deferred penalty. The programmes may be operated during temporary release.

The intensive probation supervision work programmes have a number of phases. In the first phase, an assessment is carried out of the offender in terms of motivation, addiction, social skill and educational training needs. The second phase involves a number of group work modules that are designed to meet the offender’s needs. The third phase involves reintegration, with ongoing support and assistance in the management of personal life problems.

Community Services

See the separate section on community service sanctions. Community service involves the provision of unpaid work in the community by persons over 16 years of age, convicted of an offence for whom the appropriate penalty would be an immediate custodial sentence but who consent to participation in the community services sanction. There is a provision for placement and supervision under the probation and welfare PWS during the order. It is an offence to fail to carry out any terms of the order.

The first adjournment involves a reference to the Probation and Welfare Service for a suitability assessment. There are guidelines which advise in relation to how the report should be prepared. Particular emphasis is laid on the suitability of the offender and the availability of suitable community work.

A report is made to court following the assessment. If the offender is deemed suitable, consents and the relevant community service work is available, a community service order may be made. A sentence of detention is specified in default of compliance.

The specified number of hours of works must be done. The community work classically includes painting and decorating community facilities, landscaping, assistance with youth clubs and senior citizen centres. The offender is supervised by the Probation and Welfare Office. It is obliged to apply to court for a summons, if the offender fails to comply. He may be given additional time or may be imprisoned, in default.

Other Services

The Probation and Welfare Service plays a role within prisons in relation to the welfare and rehabilitation of prisoners. The officers act as social workers. They assist prisoners in resolving personal and practical problems. A counsellor may coordinate the activities of voluntary groups visiting and dealing with offenders who are imprisoned.

The Probation Services have instituted several initiatives which seek to provide drug treatment facilities and therapeutic assistance for sex offenders.

The Probation and Welfare Services is involved in the Department of Justice’s review of sentences in the case of prisoners who have served more than seven years. The Service is also involved in requests for transfer under the transfer of prisoner’s legislation.

The Probation and Welfare Service supervise the temporary release of prisoners in accordance with planned programmes. They are not necessarily involved in all temporary releases which are sometimes undertaken to relieve pressure on prison accommodation. The Services assess prisoners considered for temporary release.


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