Five years ago, Santosh Pawar* retired from Maharashtra’s Women and Child Development Department after serving for more than two decades as a probation officer. His work just before retirement barely resembled the work he did when he first started out.

When he was first recruited, Pawar worked in the probation system set up under the state’s prisons department. The task of the probation officer is to liaise within the various branches of the criminal justice system – the offender, the magistrate, the social environment of the offender – and to recommend for probation undertrials who have pleaded guilty, or been found guilty of committing an offence. Once someone is released on supervision, the designated officer must follow up each case.

The system is oriented towards rehabilitation to decrease the load on prisons and to help reform those offenders who are not charged with serious offences. For this, the duties of probation officers involve writing pre-sentencing reports in which they evaluate whether an offender can be released back into the community on a bond of good behaviour, or on supervision for a period ranging from one to three years. Experts have recommended the use of the probation system in cases of first time offenders or when offenders are below 21 years.

When the probation system takes a backseat, jails might become unduly crowded, first-time offenders might get exposed to career criminals in prison, and the reformation goal might be lost sight of.

In shambles

“Earlier it was going well,” said Pawar, who has also helped train probation officers since he retired. “But in the later years I had to fight to be able to do probationary work.”

In the past decade at least, since the probation system became the responsibility of the Women and Child Development Department, it has been in a shambles. A Right to Information reply to this reporter revealed that there are 261 sanctioned posts for such officers under the Probation of Offenders Act. However, 108 of these posts lie vacant. Moreover, department officials say that all the recruitments aren’t for the explicit implementation of the Probation of Offenders Act alone.

While officers are recruited under this Act, they aren’t tasked with just prison and court duties, but with a slew of other administrative responsibilities. This means they have to implement other welfare schemes of the department, including monitoring and visiting children’s homes, beggars’ homes and women’s shelters.

“What should happen isn’t happening,” said an official from the Women and Child Development Department. “We have sent a proposal to fill vacancies and create new posts.”

Erratic implementation

One officer spoke of how the probation system helped rehabilitate offenders. “Everyone is not a serious criminal,” said the officer. “If the probation officer makes an assessment, such people can be rehabilitated outside. We have seen people improve.”

He continued, “If you spend more time in prison, it is worse. Releasing them may be better for society.”

In 2007, actor Sanjay Dutt, who was convicted in the 1993 blasts case, applied for a probation officer to be appointed in his case to assess his conduct and see whether he could be eligible for leniency during sentencing. That was one of the few occasions in the past when the probation system came to light.

But the use of probation itself as a correctional measure instead of jail time has plummeted, said lawyer Abhaykumar Apte, who practices in Maharashtra. “Earlier the rate of giving probation was higher,” he said, “But now the practice has declined.”

Thirteen of the state’s 36 districts responded to a Right to Information query on the number of supervision cases, pre-sentencing reports (reports submitted before sentencing) and jail visits conducted by such officers. From their responses, a picture emerged of erratic implementation and piecemeal efforts to implement the probation system.

For instance, in Osmanabad there were just three supervision cases in 2015, in Nashik eight, in Ahmednagar five (see table).

Source: Right to Information replies received from district offices of the Women And Child Development Department.

The number of occasions on which officers filed pre-sentencing reports also varied across districts over a two-year period, suggesting that it has been left up to the motivation and drive of individual magistrates or judges and officers to implement probation provisions. For instance, in 2015, Ahmednagar district’s lower judiciary called for 187 pre-sentencing reports, compared with just 28 the previous year. In 2015, Buldhana district called for 13 such reports and eight the previous year.

Likewise, jail visits of probation officers also varied.

“All of this points to how implementation has become uneven and how the role of the probation officer has been diluted over the years,” said Vijay Raghavan, professor, Centre for Criminology and Justice, and Dean, Social Protection, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “The probation system has not been properly implemented.”

Faltering probation system

In 2008, the Centre for Criminology and Justice did a study on the system, speaking to various limbs of the criminal justice machinery. “Many say they don’t know about the Act,” he said. “It is not considered important. Officers are being used to do other work.”

Officers are shouldering a bunch of responsibilities, resigned to juggling whatever comes their way. According to Pawar, between the overburdened judiciary and the under-enthusiastic department, the system has faltered. “The department would say, ‘only do this work if the court calls you’,” he said. “But there is also a big load on magistrates and judges so sometimes they also don’t think of the probation system.”

In the meantime, those on the job, claim they are doing the best they can. “When I first joined my post three years ago, there were 60 case files piled up on my desk,” said one probation officer. “I had no training and I had to learn the ropes on my own.” This officer claimed that some of his colleagues did not even have a background in social work. “Obviously then there will be deficiencies,” said the officer. “They don’t even know how to ask the basic questions [of undertrials].”

The 2008 study found that intensive induction training had reduced to just two weeks from between three to six months in the 1990s. This was because the department said it couldn’t spare staff for long periods. “The POs [probation officers] stated that the lack of proper induction training has affected the quality of their work,” the report said. The report had further recommended a review of the number of officers working, better infrastructure to help them discharge their duties, induction and refresher trainings among other things.

Lawyers who work in the trial courts say that the probation officers are simply unable to deliver on the full potential of the system, which involves close follow-up, frequent visits and helpful guidance to their wards. “Sometimes they don’t even visit the probationers assigned to them,” said Hitesh Shah, a lawyer. “So they are unable to capture the full picture.”

*Name changed.