The long-awaited amendment to the Probation Services Act (116 of 1 991), which makes provision for “assistant probation officers”, has still not been passed. However, many of you working within Probation Services might be aware that assistant probation officers have been appointed as pilot projects in provinces. The first group was appointed in the Western Cape in September 1998.
A recent study embarked upon by the Community Law Centre specifically looked at the role and functions performed by the assistant probation officers. The study sought to establish whether the purpose for which assistant probation officers were appointed was being met. Two provinces, namely Mpumalanga and the Western Cape, were targeted for purposes of the study. The Western Cape was the first province to appoint assistant probation officers and was also chosen for its urban setting. On the other hand, Mpumalanga was the province that had the most assistant probation officers – a total of 21 who were appointed for a period of nine months (their contracts having terminated on 31 August 2001). This province was also chosen for its widespread rural setting.
The research methodology consisted of semi-structured interviews with assistant probation officers, their supervisors and probation officers. In total, 33 interviews were conducted wherein views, opinions and comments were sought.
This article will briefly look at the reasons why assistant probation officers were deemed necessary, the tasks they performed and the views of probation officers and their supervisors towards this new category of employees.
Why were assistant probation officers
Assistant probation officers were basically appointed to assist probation officers to carry out the probation services and functions as provided for in the Probation Services Act. Owing to a huge workload and also as a result of the lack of capacity, probation officers were not able to render supervision services to probationers, nor were they able to deliver crime prevention and awareness programmes to the communities and public at large. A countrywide advisory group comprising members from the Department of Social Development and other key role-players saw the need to appoint assistant probation officers. Their main focus was to render probation services to children who came into conflict with the law. The formal qualifications held by those who were appointed as assistant probation officers ranged from senior certificates to diplomas in teaching, human resource management, information technology, marketing and tourism. Within a month of their appointments, they received formal and informal training, which included Developmental Assessment Training, Criminal Justice Legislation and Legislation Relating to Children, Understanding the Criminal Justice System and Government Structure, Interviewing Skills and Diversion. The training received was indeed beneficial to the new appointees and sufficiently equipped them to carry out their tasks.
What are the daily tasks performed by
assistant probation officers?
The study revealed that the tasks performed by the assistant probation officers generally include the following:
monitoring and supervision of children serving sentences of community service,
running crime prevention and awareness programmes at schools and within the communities,
tracing family members,
visiting homes to establish the family circumstances and to gather information required by the probation officers for presentence reports.
In the Western Cape, assistant probation officers also have the duty to supervise those children who are placed under house arrest while awaiting trial. In Mpumalanga, the assistant probation officers had the responsibility of visiting police cells on a regular basis to establish whether any child had been arrested and also to perform the basic assessment within 48 hours after the arrest of the child. Furthermore, they ran diversion programmes with groups and facilitated victim-offender mediation meetings in cases where minor crimes such as theft had been committed. Any recommendations made by the assistant probation officer regarding the placement of the child while awaiting trial was discussed with the probation officer or supervisor. These added responsibilities for assistant probation officers in Mpumalanga may be attributed to the fact that probation officers in Mpumalanga also have the responsibility of performing generic social work and do not only perform probation services. In the Western Cape, probation officers only carry out duties related to probation services and these include visiting police cells, performing the assessments of children who are arrested and making recommendations to court regarding the placement of a child or possible diversion option.
Views of supervisors and probation officers
The feedback received from both supervisors and probation officers regarding the appointment of assistant probation officers and their quality of work was very positive. Probation officers were better able to manage their workload and could concentrate on their other duties relating to probation services. In the Western Cape, probation officers had the time to visit police cells and perform assessments on arrested children within 48 hours and to also prepare presentence reports. In Mpumalanga, probation officers were always kept informed of children who were arrested or in custody, thanks to the regular visits to police cells by the assistant probation officers. The communities and schools were also informed of the probation services offered within their area and children were informed of issues relating to drugs, alcohol and crime.
In conclusion, the preliminary research findings indicate that there is a definite need for the further appointment of assistant probation officers to assist in the delivery of probation services, and also to meet the obligations placed on various role-players, especially the Department of Social Development, in terms of the Child Justice Bill. As one of the supervisors stated, “with the appointment of assistant probation officers, probation services were given new meaning and were made visible within the communities".
The general feeling was that assistant probation officers should be reappointed in Mpumalanga and more assistant probation officers should be appointed in the various offices within the Western Cape, where the need for such services is greater. The Department of Social Services can surely look forward to assistant probation officers becoming permanent staff members in view of the obligations placed on the Department in the Child Justice Bill. The further appointments of assistant probation officers will also be more cost effective and will certainly enhance the capacity to deliver probation services to both the urban and rural communities.
Acknowledgements: Article 40, published by the Children's Rights Project, Community Law Centre, University of the Western Cape.
A child justice system should “take into account the child's age and the desirability of promoting the child's reintegration and the child's assuming a constructive role in society" [Article 40(1)]