Value for Money Examination  46:   The Probation and Welfare Service   Press Release



Dublin Castle

26 April 2004

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr John Purcell, has today published a report about the operation of the Probation and Welfare Service over the period 1995 to 2002.

Background

The Probation and Welfare Service operates as a separate agency within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.  In March 2003, it had a staff of 323.  Total expenditure by the Service in 2003 is estimated at ?34.6 million.

The Service plays a key part in the criminal justice system by

npreparing reports at the request of judges, to assist them in deciding on appropriate sentences for offenders

nsupervising offenders subject to community-based sanctions ordered by the courts

nfunding a range of community/voluntary sector schemes and programmes that provide education, accommodation, treatment and counselling services for offenders under supervision in the community

nplanning and assisting in the rehabilitation of offenders in prisons or other places of detention.    

The number of offenders being supervised in the community by officers of the Service increased from around 2,700 in 1995 to around 4,100 in 2002 ? an increase of 53%.  90% of the work of the Service is conducted in the community. Services are also provided in prisons.

The examination focused on how well the Service has addressed the demands for its outputs, the efficiency of its operations and how it evaluates its effectiveness.

Main Findings

The availability, in appropriate cases, of community-based sanctions provides judges with an sentencing alternative which may also be more economic.  For example, the cost of implementing community service orders appears to average around one-third of the cost of implementing the custodial sentences that judges indicated they would otherwise have imposed.

In 1999, a review group recommended increased use of non-custodial sanctions relative to the use of custodial sanctions, but there has been no significant move towards supervision in the community. The ratio of offenders under supervision relative to the average daily prison population remains at around 1.3 persons under supervision for each person in custody. 

The cost for supervision of offenders varies, depending on the type of order made by the court.  In 2001, the estimated cost ranged from ?1,500 on average to implement and supervise a community service order, up to an average of ?6,100 to implement and supervise a probation order.  The cost of the Service?s work with those in custody was estimated at around ?750 per person per year.  

The number of pre-sentence reports prepared for judges to inform their sentencing decisions has increased from around 5,800 in 1995 to a peak of around 7,700 in 1999, before falling back to around 7,000 reports in 2000.  Although the Service considers pre-sentence reports should be provided in most cases where judges are contemplating the use of custody, it did not generally promote the provision of reports to courts because it had insufficient resources to meet higher demand. 

While there was a statutory provision for judges to seek reports from the Service in family law cases, this service was not provided for most  of the period reviewed.   Up to 1995, the Service provided some support in family law cases, but this was suspended to concentrate on meeting demand in the criminal justice area.  Following an 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.

Probation and Welfare Officers routinely attend District Court hearings to receive requests for reports and referrals for supervision, and to deliver completed reports.  There may be scope to reduce the resources currently devoted to this routine court attendance ? which absorb an estimated 13% of the available professional main grade resources of the Service ? for instance, by developing better IT links with the Courts Service.

The performance measurement and reporting systems necessary for the effective management of the Service are underdeveloped.  

The effectiveness of the Service, in both its community-based work and work with offenders in custody, might best be evaluated in terms of its impact on the level of re-offending.  No research has been carried out on rates of re-offending and the relative effectiveness of custodial sentences and community-based sanctions in Ireland. This needs to be addressed by the Service and the Department so that they can evaluate the effectiveness of the service.

Notes for Editors

The Comptroller and Auditor General is an independent constitutional officer with responsibility for the audit of public funds.  He reports to Dáil ?reann. 

The full text of the report is available on the website of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (go to www.gov.ie/audgen/)

For further information about the report, please contact:

Seamus McCarthy at (087) 907 8262  or at Seamus_McCarthy@audgen.irlgov.ie