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International Origins and Initial Development of Probation: An Early Example of Policy Transfer

NCJ Number
British Journal of Criminology Volume: 48 Issue: 6 Dated: November 2008 Pages: 735-755
Maurice Vanstone
Date Published
November 2008
21 pages
This paper examines why probation emerged as an alternative to incarceration throughout the world in a relatively short time period at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
Between 1878 and 1920, probation was placed on the statute books in countries of North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. This occurred simultaneously with the birth and early growth of the social science of criminology. The main argument of this paper is that, although the early origins of probation were variously and unevenly shaped by a variety of mechanisms, people, ideologies, economies, and politics, the common factor was a loss of faith in prisons as a means of reforming offenders. This loss of faith in the reforming power of imprisonment occurred under the emerging sciences of criminology, psychology, and sociology, as well the application of religion to criminality, which promoted optimism about the possibility of changing criminal behavior through the management of social conditions, opportunities, skill development, and therapeutic interactions. Thus, probation emerged worldwide in different countries, cultures, and political systems through a simultaneous loss of faith in the reforming capabilities of prison and a belief that the government could exert sufficient discipline, control, and behavioral modification techniques to keep the community safe. 73 references