This month Corrections is marking 130 years since New Zealand became the first country in the world to introduce a probation system.

“Probation officers make a significant contribution to their local communities by supporting those they work with become contributing members of society. The work they do is interesting, challenging and dynamic. No two days are ever the same,” says Wellington District Manager Graham Wainwright.

“Probation officers have a dual role – they manage sentences in a way that supports offenders to turn their lives around, while also using risk assessments and monitoring to ensure public safety and sentence integrity.”

The First Offenders’ Probation Act was passed in August 1886, allowing first time offenders to avoid jail time and instead be supervised in the community. The first probation officers appointed were either gaolers or police and there was no salary.

When the service was first established, there were 18 people placed on probation and by 1949 there were seven full-time probation officers. In 2016 there are 1,200 full-time paid probation officers nationally managing around 30,000 people serving sentences in the community.

Sincere efforts were made to help people reform. That early legislation established the role of our first probation officers, setting out their duties and powers that still apply today.

In the early days, offenders in far flung parts of the colony were allowed to report by letter, and careful records were kept of their compliance and how much money was saved by keeping them out of prison.

Probation officers were required to “carefully inquire” into the character and offences of “every person arrested for any first offence” to determine if they were reasonably expected to “reform without imprisonment” and to keep a “full record” of the results of their investigations. And if they were satisfied that it was in the best interests of the public and the offender, probation officers had a “special duty” to recommend probation to the courts.

James GillhamCorrections is currently recruiting across all frontline roles. If you would like more information about working as a probation officer, corrections officer, case manager, programme facilitator, or instructor, check out the website:

Soldier an early example of probation in action

James Gillham (pictured) is an early example of probation in action. James was born in London in 1894. He jumped ship and arrived in Wellington in 1913 and the next year he burgled and ransacked eight houses in Aro Valley, Wellington, and stole 300 pounds worth of jewellery at Whanganui.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years' hard labour on each charge, plus three years’ “Reformative Detention”. He served six months in Wellington Prison, then two years as an inmate of His Majesty's Reformatory, Invercargill.

James was recommended for probation in April 1917, provided he was accepted for service in the NZ Expeditionary Force to fight in WWI. He embarked from Wellington in July 1917 and joined the 4th Reserve Battalion of the Otago Infantry Regiment and was sent to France where he saw active service. He was later classified as unfit for military service due to being gassed.

After the war he returned to England where he married, had eight children and was regarded as a pillar of his community. He died in September 1974, aged 80.

(Photo: Te Papa)