Gerry McNally Probation

European Probation Systems in Transition

// Interview: Gerry McNally

President of the Confederation of European Probation (CEP)

JT: Across Europe, cultural diversity is undeniable, as well as different economic performances, perspectives, and very diverse maturity stages of their probation systems. In some countries, probation settings are either inexistent or incipient.
Given this reality, what are the main challenges to probation services in Europe?

GM: It’s about working in partnership and understanding with people, because each jurisdiction is slightly different from the next, so you can’t take it for granted that what happens in one will work in another. I think one of the big things we have to understand is the cultural context, the political issues and the bigger picture. So, it’s really about understanding: understanding each other in the first place, I think that’s one of the strengths that CEP brings… Because it brings people together to talk in the first instance and to share what’s going on.

In some jurisdictions, probation has been in existence for almost 200 years, for example, the Netherlands, whereas in other jurisdictions probation is either being established or beginning again, as in Slovenia. They’re coming from different experiences, but many of the issues are the same.

It isn’t, for example, necessarily about alternatives to prison but prison as an alternative to community-based sanctions. Developing mutual understanding about the benefits of working with people in the community is a key priority, and the range of issues that we’re facing also includes radicalisation, violent extremism, marginalisation, mental health, etc. The issue of net-widening is becoming a concern. It is possible that we have too many people on supervision.

It is important to understand that supervision has to be purposeful, it needs to have a benefit, it is not policing as such. It’s about working with people to change lives, to create opportunities, and to make communities safer. Not all offenders, for example, low risk/need offenders, need to be subject to supervision. In some cases, research indicates, it can be counter-productive.

What are the main challenges? The challenges are not only to meet the needs and priorities of the members and to help address the current social issues that contribute to the risk of offending, for example, look at the level of homelessness in Europe: Homelessness is a major contributing factor. So what do you do with offenders? How do you best work with offenders who are homeless?

Like much of the work of probation it is about joined-up services, it’s not probation on its own… Probation works – it needs to work – along with housing, mental health, drug treatment, family support, because there is no single magic bullet or ‘cure’ and so you need to have knowledge, skills and partners working as a team.

Much of the work is about developing a culture of mutual understanding among service providers to engage effectively with people, to support hope, change and positive careers for people.

JT: To which extent do you draw from your extensive experience in the Irish probation paradigm to develop your job within CEP?

GM: Probation services, in most countries, have made that journey from being a standalone service, to be much more integrated and cooperative with others, not just in criminal justice, but also in the wider community.

In Ireland, we do a lot of joint working with the prison service, with the police, with health services, statutory, community and voluntary services such as with the homeless service, accommodation and family support etc. Almost 30% of the Probation Service budget funds community and voluntary bodies providing services to support and complement the aims and work of the Probation Service.

Having worked both as a probation officer in the field and as a manager in Ireland provides, for me, a better understanding and feel for what it takes to do the job with people and make a difference.

You learn from experience and that’s what I see happening elsewhere in Europe. You understand the need for a degree of understanding and pragmatism, about being solution-focused and that change can take time in all walks of life. Above all, a key factor is being person-focused: you need to be talking to the person you’re working with; you need to be engaging them.

Change and progress are about building relationships because people change through relationships, they don’t change only through rules, they change primarily through relationships and hope, that’s where probation practice and management work.

JT: There are some events and initiatives that are jointly organised by CEP and other big organisations, such as ICPA and EuroPris (for instance the “2nd Technology in Corrections Conference: Challenges for the future”)How do you see and describe the intertwining and cooperation with these entities?

GM: We all need to be working and talking and co-operating with each other, and I think that’s part of life. In what we, CEP, do it is important to be working with ICPA, EuroPris, and others.

We have shared objectives and we need to share experience and knowledge, and we need to understand each other especially when we are coming from different perspectives and backgrounds. We can complement and add value in what we do.

There is an opportunity in that complementarity and co-operation for each of us to prosper and achieve goals. I believe we can share a lot of knowledge and learn from others’ successes and also missteps.

We have to be learning organisations and working with ICPA, with the Criminal Justice Platform, with APPA in the US, with universities and the research community, is about that.

It will produce results for the people and communities we’re working with; it will help people change behaviour, and it will help communities to be safer.

JT: Is there an ongoing project you’d like to highlight?

GM: I think, for CEP, working to bring together a greater partnership between the research community and agencies and practitioners in criminal justice is important and will bring results for everyone.

Community supervision has been a neglected field of study and application in the past. In community sanctions and measures, the COST project, which brought together academics and researchers and brought in practitioners and agencies, showed a way forward.

That’s where CEP and the other criminal justice networks can now add value and draw benefit for members from the results of the work.

The application of research in practice is one area that we need to focus on the next few years. We do need to learn to work smarter and better. We can do this through research, evaluation and using evidence-based practice. This applies whether you are working in prisons or in the community.

What we risk is continuing to do what we always did because that is what we did whether it works or not. We ask offenders to change their behaviour and habits, but it can also be a challenge for probation officers and criminal justice professionals to change their practice and embed new ways of working; that’s the task for in-career development. A change process can be just as difficult for probation organisations and for probation people as it is for the offenders we’re working with.

JT: How do you see the future of probation in Europe, and what challenges do you see coming?

GM: The big challenge we have, I think, is how we can keep probation in the community. I believe probation officers work best not in the office but in the community, where people live, meeting with people, understanding what’s facing them, instilling hope and focus and helping change.

There is a risk that probation could become more compliance and enforcement focused; policing rather than working with people. People skills are among the most important attributes for probation officers to be successful. Understanding, persistence, and authority at the right time produce results in working with people.

Probation management in meeting organisational and effective practice objectives has to reconcile pressure for immediate results in circumstances where the people probation work with are often marginalised, prone to repeated relapse, and breakdown on the way to change and often feared.

As society gets busier, more results-focused and hurried it is important to balance the temptation to control and the need to care. For many, probation sits in that nexus and seeking to provide a bridge to change for offenders while contributing to community safety and well-being.

As probation officers, we need to learn to work with technical innovation and that includes everything from apps to electronic monitoring. How do we get the best value – not just in financial terms – but the best value in helping people, in changing people’s behaviour and giving people the opportunity to develop?

E-learning provides interesting opportunities; we can also use apps and phones for communication and engagement. How can electronic monitoring add value in community supervision? We have to understand better how social media might work in probation. I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d like to… They’re questions we need to be looking at.

We have to be looking forward. Five years ago nobody thought of the word radicalisation! If you were writing your business plan in 2012, 2013, 2014, would you have mentioned radicalisation? No.

We’ve always had violent extremism but not in this way. We didn’t know the word was, but now we need to know! I am sure there are other new challenges ahead that we haven’t anticipated… I believe one of the big things we have to do is to be open enough to address what comes because we don’t always know what’s coming. Be ready to be surprised!

Be ready to ask and to talk about the means that are required to address new challenges. If you are going to be open to new challenges, you have to be open to new solutions and new ways of working, new ways of doing things.

JT: How does CEP help its members overcome such challenges?

GM: CEP is a network of people with shared objectives and shared goals in different jurisdictions across Europe. We are all working towards generally the same objectives. We’re working with other agencies and services with shared aims, so it’s about mutual understanding, it’s about working together, sharing and mutual support.

CEP is very much about bringing people and organisations together, providing a forum, sharing information, prompting and supporting. CEP also provides a voice for probation in pan-European bodies and authorities, advises decision-makers and promotes the use of community sanctions.

Providing that network, resource , and voice for probation should not be underestimated. Sharing a problem is the start of the solution; if you have a problem and you’re on your own, it’s going to be a very big problem. If you share the problem, discuss the problem, you’ll break it up, you begin to get to a solution. This is part of co-operation, mutual understanding and it works as much for organisations as it does for people.

CEP, as an organisation, can champion innovation and new ideas, host meetings and events across jurisdictions and bring experts together. CEP can, in this way, for example, support and strengthen engagement between the research community and practitioners.

CEP brings people together, hosts the conversation and prompts the discussion; I think that’s what our expert groups or workshops, our newsletters are all about: it’s about sharing and learning. And that is what we need to do to face and manage challenges ahead.

JT: What’s your strategic approach regarding CEP’s objectives of advocating probation at an international level and reaching out to other jurisdictions?

GM: One of the objectives of CEP is very much about engaging with both national and international entities to explain the value and effectiveness of community sanctions and supervision promote their use.

That’s why it’s very important, for example, that CEP works closely with the European Commission and national authorities. The Council of the European Union makes laws and regulations and CEP engages with its members and practitioners. We are in a good position to help communicate directly with authorities and practitioners to implement decisions and regulations in practice.

One small example, Council of Europe’s Framework Decision 2008/947/JHA, makes provision for mutual recognition of probation decisions and transfer of supervision of probation measures and alternative sanctions among member states. This is an important measure in supporting supervision and reintegration of offenders in their home jurisdictions.

A community service order made in another jurisdiction can be completed in the offender’s home jurisdiction. CEP has an expert group, which I chair, to promote the implementation of this Framework Decision and best practice among members. In this way, CEP supports the work of the Council of Europe and also provides leadership, expertise, and information to members.

CEP is a network, it’s open, we don’t have a rigid agenda, we don’t need you to do it our way, we need to do it the best way for members, so it’s your problem and we help you, but you make the decisions for your own jurisdiction. That’s why we can help and advise individual jurisdictions, and encourage and support visits by delegations to other members to see what they’re doing, that’s another part of work: sharing.

The Council of Europe Probation Rules (2010), which CEP contributed to the drafting of, are a very important, establishing standards adopted throughout Europe. They provide a valuable framework for probation organisations and practice, incorporating good governance and respect for human rights. CEP’s role in the development and promotion of the Rules is an example of the overarching work of CEP providing a Europe-wide perspective informed by the membership.

CEP can help the European and national authorities in terms of what works, and what doesn’t work, what might work, and what might not work. We can also help by encouraging and providing access to experts and knowledge. At the high level, we do that with national governments because you can say: “this is what’s happening, how can we help, and what do you seek?”

CEP is the probation ‘family’ in Europe. Families help each other, support each other, and encourage each other. As a network, CEP has the strength of its members, the experience of over 35 years and access to an array of experience and experts. With that, CEP can advocate strongly for the benefits, value , and efficacy of community measures and sanctions in criminal justice in Europe as the voice of probation in Europe.

Confederation of European Probation (CEP) meeting (2017)

JT: Which milestones or accomplishments would you like to highlight during your first six months at the forefront of CEP?

GM: CEP has been working with the RAN network to hold the joint first dedicated workshop on radicalisation in probation. There’s been a lot of focus on radicalisation in prisons, but I think if you look at what happened in France, the Netherlands and in Belgium, then you realise that there is a real risk with some people on probation in the community.

If you look at other jurisdictions, you see violent extremism in different forms and again it can be an issue in practice in probation supervision. In Ireland, North and South, we have had violent extremism in paramilitary form. In every jurisdiction, there have been different experiences often known by different names. We have to learn how to recognise it and work out what to do.

As in other points discussed, CEP recognises the value and importance of joined-up approaches, sharing knowledge and information and co-operation with other services and communities. The progress to date on strengthening the engagement between CEP and the academic and research networks is promising and important. Putting research and evaluation at the heart of CEP’s plans will add value and provide the evidence for better practice, better outcomes and an even stronger case for using community sanctions, particularly in place of custodial penalties.

The success of the 2nd Alternatives to Detention in Central and Eastern Europe Conference, in Dubrovnik, in November, was a highlight in how it provided a dedicated platform and networking opportunity for members in that region.

That was important because CEP is not only for Western Europe, Southern Europe, or Scandinavia but also for central Europe and Eastern Europe and new members everywhere. It is for the older established services and for the newest. Nobody should be excluded or left without a voice. CEP is about being inclusive, like a good family.

JT: The European Commission has some limitations regarding some aspects of justice policy and programs to support the establishment and/or streamlining of probation services across its member-states.
What do you think could be changed in order to allow the European Commission and the funding instruments to support the development of effective probation services?

GM: There have been many positive initiatives and actions in supporting development, not only by the European Commission but also by grant programmes by individual states such as Norway and the Netherlands.

The EC operating grant and action grants have been valuable resources and very useful in many jurisdictions. CEP, itself, has benefitted greatly from Council of Europe Operating Grant support, which has enabled CEP in much of its developmental and support work with members.

Many agencies and bodies have participated and benefitted through partnership in action grant projects funded through the Council of Europe. While the obligations and accountability requirements are demanding, the output and experience of the projects have been valuable for participants and for others sharing the learning.

ERASMUS has been very good at helping to develop research and research in probation. I believe we need to get better at accessing and using it and other funding instruments to support not only innovation but also good practice, systems, and governance. The Horizon 2020 programme has opportunities.

Probation bodies need to learn – about how to access funding, Horizon 2020, in particular, – how to do work with bureaucracy and complex application and accountability processes. Probation people are not necessarily good at working with bureaucracy, They’re usually “people-people”, but we need to get better.

On the other hand, it would be helpful if funding programmes could be more flexible, able to support probation development partnerships, skills, and promotion of probation. There does need to be additional support and resources to promote community sanctions as strong, meaningful and effective at a European level, and also in each jurisdiction.

Council of Europe’s support and funding for research and evaluation in criminal justice, particularly cross-jurisdiction projects, could have rich pan-European benefits for CE interests and services across Europe. I believe that research and ongoing evaluation drives innovation and quality ensuring value and better working practices.

The area of social enterprise and social innovation in criminal justice has shown promise. With greater support more could be achieved nationally and Europe-wide in the development of effective probation services.

Probation is in the business of hope and change and safer lives, but we also have to be the pragmatic managers to ‘keep the show on the road’. That’s why we need to work with the partners at Commission level and funders’ level, as well as working with the other organisations with shared interests.

CEP has met with the Council of Europe and others regarding project and other funding opportunities and will look forward to future discussions and possible new initiatives. It can be a complex process.


Gerry McNally is the President of the Confederation of European Probation (CEP) since the beginning of October 2016; he has been elected for a three-year term. Simultaneously, Mr. McNally is – since 2006 – the Assistant Director of the Irish Probation Service. The Confederation of European Probation (CEP) is a network of European probation agencies and organisations whose mission is to promote the social inclusion of offenders through community sanctions and measures such as probation, community service,
mediation, and conciliation.

Like / Share:
More stories
The Hidden Epidemic: Organised Crime in Prisons and the Threat to Societal Safety