Experts Panel prison probation merger

One, Together or Side by Side? Different views on the organisation of prison and probation systems

Historically, the development of prisons and probation services has taken course in parallel lines.
In the United Kingdom, prior to the beginning of the 60s, the probation service had strictly nothing to do with prisons; the growth of welfare work in prisons increased to the points at which the two services got more related to each other, nevertheless each remained with its separate identity, culture, and history (Senior, Crowther-Dowey and Long, 2007).

In England and Wales, for instance, a team-up started to make sense because of the formal partnerships that began to emerge in the late 1990s, entailing the management of various categories of high-risk individuals in the community (Robinson & McNeill, 2016).

As evidenced by Gibson and Cavadino (2008), “partnership, working together, or multi-agency working have been a regular feature of the public affairs”.

There seems to be a consensus that prison and probation need to have close interaction and communication whenever a continuum of care exists. This is supported by the Council of Europe, for example, on its Recommendation on Probation Rules CM/Rec(2010)1:

Whether or not probation agencies and the prison service form part of a single organisation, they shall work in close cooperation in order to contribute to a successful transition from life in prison to life in the community (Council of Europe, The Committee of Ministers to Member States, 2010).

Such general agreement, however, does not occur when discussing the organisational formats in which this cooperation should take place. Working separate, or closely together under the same umbrella of a Ministry of Justice? Complementing or integrating, through a merger, the typical functions of the execution of sentences of prison and probation services?

Driven by the need to optimise public services and cut public spending, the discussion occasionally emerges in the political and public agendas, in some countries, surpassing the sociotechnical rationale that should guide this reflection. Perspectives diverge.

Some merger advocates highlight that “the ultimate goal of both prison and probation services is exactly the same, so there’s no point for any separation” (Esa Vesterbacka, Director General of the Criminal Sanctions Agency, Finland).

On the contrary, those who defend that prison and probation services should be complementary, both in their mission and structures, tend to say that the separate roles and functions of the professionals who work for either one or the other system is radically different, arguing that “prison targets secure confinement spaces and probation puts the person at the centre of intervention, doing it in the community which is an open environment and more reintegration-enabling”, as it is the opinion of Annie Devos, Director General of the Houses of Justice, Wallonia-Brussels Federation, Belgium.

Mawby and Worrall (2011) emphasize that the “ever closer formal relationships between [these two] agencies have not always been comfortable, raising issues of information sharing, conflicting objectives, different ways of working, contrasting attitudes towards offenders and, not least, cultural tensions”, a view also confirmed by Vivian Geiran, Director of the Irish Probation Service, when stating that “prison and probation are very different as sanctions and in their priorities, values, and organisational contexts (…)”.

In the aforementioned case of England and Wales, the referred advantages of the merger are essentially related to the implementation of an offender management system. Such has enabled a personalised needs’ management and the set-up of interventions from the beginning to the end of sentences.

Hence, this “end-to-end sentencing” configures the expression of “seamless sentence” (Robinson & Raynor, 2006). Such sentences are “effective mechanisms to ensure continuity and cohesion between work with an offender inside prison and in the community following his/her release” (Gibson & Cavadino, 2008).

“The ultimate goal of both prison and probation services is exactly the same, so there’s no point for any separation.”

— Director General Esa Vesterbacka

Some decision makers – like Marc Cerón, Catalonia’s Deputy Director General of Reparation and Criminal Enforcement in the Community and former President of the Confederation of European Probation – uphold that “a merged model could generate efficiencies based on the cross-sectional use of management units, as well as enable the creation of a common culture”.

In many occasions, a merging process is far from being straightforward, because “there are cultural differences (…), separate histories and, in many respects, a stark contrast (…)” between their respective institutional settings (Robinson, 2011).

It may be said that the ideology and motivation discrepancy can get so intense, that some probation officers completely disagree with the principles of incarceration, making their identification with a merged system a non-peaceful matter: “(…) to be a probation officer is to be skeptical of imprisonment, to stand for something different for the offenders (Nellis, 1999, p. 312, cited by Senior, Crowther-Dowey and Long, 2007).

Perhaps the issue of their different development stages can’t be overlooked in this debate either as the timing can influence the success of an eventual merger under the same aegis. This is, in part, the opinion conveyed by Jana Špero, the Assistant Minister in charge of the Croatian Correctional System: “by having developed independently from the large, very structured and well-established Prison System, our Probation Service was able to achieve recognition and its place on national and international levels, among stakeholders and the public opinion.”

For their part, Robinson and Raynor (2006) allege that a single institutional umbrella serves the purpose of overcoming lack of coordination and resources. This line of reasoning is consistent with the one of Svilen Tsevetanov, Director General of the Bulgarian Correctional System when expressing that a merged system can “use a single ‘toolbox’ and similar programmes for diagnosis, counselling and correctional work with the offenders”.

Moreover, Bottoms (1995) draws attention to the importance of the process of systematisation within the correctional services, as it tends to emphasize interagency cooperation in order to fulfil the overall goals of the system. This premise meets the thinking of some authors who remark that agencies “should achieve much more in a coordinated endeavour than when working separately” (Rumgay, 2007 in Canton, 2011).

Togetherness is also an idea maintained by Joerg Jesse, Director General of the Correctional service of MWP, Germany – assuming that “a merged system reduces hierarchies and information paths, allows for integrated standards and measures and enables quality criteria in both parts of the system.”

“The ever closer formal relationships between prison and probation services have not always been comfortable, raising issues of information sharing, conflicting objectives, different ways of working, contrasting attitudes towards offenders and, not least,
cultural tensions.”

Director General Vivian Geiran

In 2011, Padfield, Van Zyl Smit and Dünkel noted that difficulties in arranging cooperation between the social services in prisons and the probation or other social services outside the institutions are common, thus, it can be concluded that the greater the separation – administratively speaking – the more difficult it is for prisons and probation services to cooperate effectively.

Ultimately, the combination of prison and probation services may be considered a synthesis of a common goal: the public protection (Raynor & Vanstone, 2007). Nevertheless, Robinson and McNeill (2016) point out that although prisons have evolved into a more rehabilitative logic – taking on a reformative value – they were initially not designed as rehabilitation instruments, whereas, on the contrary, probation services have “evolved on the very foundations of reformative optimism.”

In short, despite some consensus about working together, there seems to be a pattern of a somewhat troublesome relationship between prison and probation services, which, ultimately, may pose challenging questions and doubts about how they should relate.

It remains yet to be studied by social scientists, and explained in the light of historical institutionalism, whether the best organisational and functioning format is to keep them under the same management “umbrella” or leave them to act separately, albeit in close cooperation.

An article by Pedro das Neves & Silvia Bernardo from IPS Innovative Prison Systems


Canton, R. (2011). Probation: Working With Offenders. Oxon: Routledge, p.136.
Council of Europe, The Committee of Ministers to Member States (2010). Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)1 of the Committee of Ministers on the European Probation Rules. Council of Europe.
Gelsthorpe, L. and Morgan, R. (2011). Handbook of Probation. Oxon and New York: Routledge, p.23.
Gibson, B. and Cavadino, P. (2008). The Criminal Justice System: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Hampshire: Waterside Press, p.215.
Jones, M. and Johnstone, P. (2015). History of Criminal Justice. 5th ed. Oxon and New York: Routledge, p.389.
Mawby, R. C., & Worrall, A. (2011). ‘They Were Very Threatening about Do-Gooding Bastards’: Probation’s Changing Relationships with the Police and Prison Services in England and Wales. European journal of probation, 3(3), 78–94.
Padfield, N., Van Zyl Smit, D. and Dünkel, F. (2011). Release from Prison: European Policy and Practice. New York: Routledge, pp.206-207.
Raynor, P. and Robinson, G. (2005). Rehabilitation, Crime and Justice. 1st ed. New York: Palmgrave McMillan, p.80.
Raynor, P. and Vanstone, M. (2007). Towards a Correctional Service. In: L. Gelshorpe and R. Morgan, ed., Handbook of Probation. Cullompton: Willan.
Robinson, A. (2011). Foundations for offender management. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, p.173.
Robinson, G. and McNeill, F. (2016). Community punishment: European perspectives. 1st ed. London: Routledge, p.35.
Robinson, G., & Raynor, P. (2006). The future of rehabilitation: What role for the probation service? Probation Journal, 53(4), 334–346.
Senior, P., Crowther-Dowey, C. and Long, M. (2007). Understanding modernisation in criminal justice. Maidenhead, England: McGraw Hill/Open University Press.


For or against the merger of prison and probation services?
– The opinion of the Directors General

Esa Vesterbacka
Director General of the Criminal Sanctions Agency, Finland

“In Finland, before having been merged into one organisation (Criminal Sanctions Agency), in 2010, the prison and probation services already worked in close cooperation.

There were many reasons for the merger since the common duty is the enforcement of sentences. According to the law, the goal of both, prison sentences and community sanctions, is to promote social reintegration and prevent recidivism.

Close cooperation in the preparatory phase led to common and collectively approved values, with the main ones being the respect for human dignity, fairness, belief in an individual’s potential to change and grow, as well as safety.

Furthermore, prison and probation tend to have a common clientele; so, if there’s only one organisation, the client process is more coherent, the information concerning the clients is available more easily, and the continuums of the support measures can be better ensured.

In our system, a sentence plan – containing similar goals and measures – is prepared for every person serving either a prison sentence or a community sanction. It is also possible to flexibly employ the same staff in different tasks, which widens the range of competence.

The prison service was a considerably larger organisation than the probation one, which inspired some fear that community sanctions would get less attention in the merged organisation.

Although such concern has still to be taken into consideration, our criminal policy aims to increase more and more the use of community sanctions and promote enforcement in more open conditions. Generally speaking, operating under the same organisation is considered a success.”

Annie Devos
Director General of the Houses of Justice, Wallonia-Brussels Federation, Belgium

“I really am in favour of the separation between prison and probation. You should look at the aims of both prison and probation services. Prisons target primarily the execution of sentences with security in closed environments with a view to the reintegration.

The aim of the probation is the execution of the sentence within the community, i.e. in an open environment, where the social reintegration of the person is at the centre of the intervention.

The logic of prisons inevitably oversteps the logic of probation when both services report to the same organisation. It has to do with the budget, the recruitment of necessary staff members, the power of trade unions but also the interest of politics or the attention paid by the media.

Security plays a central role in prisons and they run 24/7 with an incident-management model, for instance, unwanted behaviours, mental health problems, suicides that may be linked to overcrowding, etc. Probation always stays in the shade of prisons because the reference in the penal system is the prison sentence.

In Belgium, only 30% of the probation population has served a prison sentence; we need to work with probationers and sustain them in enforcing the imposed conditions within a safe society.

Being apart allows the establishment of an equal position between the two organisations to determine the way of collaboration, respecting the specificities of each entity in the criminal justice system.”

Joerg Jesse
Director General of Prison and Probation Administration, Ministry of Justice, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany

“A good reintegration system is one where resocialisation is seen not in isolation but as the task of many different institutions.

Likewise, it’s one that uses and shares information across interfaces, that actively looks into external processes and wants to be synchronised with them, that pro-actively approaches external institutions, where interventions begun outside prison walls are continued and vice versa, and, that promotes the participation of local communities in the reintegration processes.

If we want to reach these objectives, we should take a look at our own areas of responsibility, and begin making changes there – and we are responsible both for the prison system and the probation service. But often they don’t work in a coordinated manner, alongside and independently of each other.

For that reason we have to connect the prison and probation system under one organisational roof, thereby reducing hierarchies and information paths, and appoint one manager to oversee both; introduce uniform standards and quality criteria in prison and probation services; introduce a system which has binding rules for the procedure at the interface between them; and redesign treatment and educational measures so that they may be used in both parts of the system.

The convicted offenders should feel that both the prisons and the probation services constitute one single system, otherwise the offender experience is a systematic break in supervision in which staff members of both sub-systems pose the same questions and collect the same data.”

Vivian Geiran
Director of the Irish Probation Service

“Prisons and Probation are fundamentally two different, yet complementary, sides of the same (corrections) ‘coin’; whether part of the same organisation or not. They are very different as sanctions, and in their priorities, values, and organisational contexts, and they perform unique roles.

The Prison and Probation Services in Ireland are agencies of the Department of Justice and Equality, under the same Ministerial portfolio, but with each having their own Director and separate organisational structures. Nevertheless, the two Services currently cooperate more closely than ever before, with agreed joint strategic plans, overseen by an interagency committee.

There are probation staff in every prison. Probation and Prisons jointly commission and co-fund third sector services, have co-located operational units, and increasing opportunities for inter-agency staff mobility.

Effective Prisons-Probation cooperation should start with each performing their respective and unique roles as well as possible. Building on that, they should cooperate closely together, with each adding real value to the work of the other. That will not necessarily be achieved simply by joining up the two organisations.

As Canton and Dominey (2018, 229) point out, on this very issue: “Joint work does not depend on merger; the best inter-agency work draws on the complementary skills, resources and authority of partner agencies… Complementary differences are a defining strength of inter-agency partnership.”

Although there are good examples of unitary prison-probation organisations working well in some countries, such ‘integration’ is not in itself a guarantee of effectiveness. In Ireland, Prisons and Probation are committed to strong joint working to achieve our shared goals, particularly in relation to reducing reoffending.”

Svilen Tsvetanov
Director of the Directorate General for the Execution of Sentences, Bulgaria

“In Bulgaria, the penitentiary and the probation services are under the same General Directorate.
The advantages include having joint management and supervision over the activities of both services include, conducting a consistent state policy in the criminal-enforcement field, and better potentialities for organising the interaction with state authorities, local government bodies, and non-governmental organisations, whose activities are relevant to sentences’ enforcement.

In addition, there’s also the unification of criteria and indicators used for planning, allocating and controlling funds, and the fact that we can define a more flexible approach to establishing and abolishing different structural services within the approved budget and personnel.

By being a merged model, we have a single management of the state properties and have assigned powers to appoint civil servants. Moreover, we have standardised training programmes and qualification for the officers, and we utilise a single common training centre and staff.

Something also important is the use of a single ‘toolbox’ and similar programmes for the diagnostic, counseling and correctional work with the offenders, both in custody and at the probation offices and field.

Another positive effect is the development of common policies in the management of companies that are state-owned/participated in regards to production and economic activity carried out inside prisons, and to the raising of funds through the subtractions made to the salaries of probationers.

And the last but not the least, a single management gives opportunities for joint participation in international cooperation in policy-making of the criminal enforcement system.”

Jana Špero
Director General of the Directorate General of Prisons and Probation, Croatia

“In the Republic of Croatia the Probation Service has always been part of the Ministry of Justice; in fact, it is rooted in the Prison System. However, a professional Probation Service wasn’t developed until 2010 and for seven years it was independent from the Prison Service.

Such was a good idea because it allowed the Probation Service to develop into a new professional service and to attain the status of a specific recognisable agency – competent for the implementation of alternative sanctions – within our criminal justice system.

Hence, by having developed independently from the large, very structured and well-established Prison System, our Probation Service was able to achieve recognition and its place on national and international levels, among stakeholders as well as before public opinion.

Since October 2017, the Probation Service has been merged with the Prison System into one Directorate. The merger will further enhance and develop a closer cooperation between the two services with respect to the same clients they work with, especially in cases of conditional release which comprise a large part of the probation caseload. Another positive aspect of the merger is the enhanced and easier collaboration in conducting treatment programmes for specific groups of offenders – very important in the supervision and resocialisation process.

Moreover, we plan on having collective training and education for the staff of both services. This shall assist in achieving common goals such as respecting human rights, increasing public safety and decreasing crime rates. We aim to improve both services through taking the best of each and keeping their differences.”

Marc Cerón i Riera
Deputy Director General of Reparation and Criminal Enforcement in the Community, Department of Justice of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia, Spain

“Whatever the organisational model that is adopted between the penitentiary services and those of social reintegration, both must work cooperatively, and this must be followed-up by a legislative deployment that takes into account and facilitates this comprehensive vision of the criminal execution services.

In addition, alliances with other institutions and civil society are essential for the success of the resocialisation mission. Sharing the same organisational structure makes it possible to generate synergies that range from the creation of a common culture, to the generation of efficiencies based on the cross-sectional use of management units. This option does not prevent both systems from resolving their singularities with different internal organisational approaches.

The potential disadvantage is that at the level of infrastructure, human resources, budget, and even impact on the media and public opinion, prison services tend to monopolise the attention. Moreover, if the managerial function is not well differentiated, that impact has an internal impact on the generation of a clear imbalance between both services, always in favour of the penitentiary system.

In a globalised, interconnected and complex world that advances from cooperation, the penitentiary and the probation services must work under the same structurally robust and integral umbrella, avoiding mistrust, sharing a mission, culture and story, and, above all, guaranteeing an empowered leadership that avoids internal imbalances.”


Like / Share:
More stories
Addressing Radicalisation, Violent Extremism, and Organised Crime in Prisons: A Multifaceted Approach