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Longest serving probation officer: 'Nail 'em, jail 'em policies will not solve repeat offending'

Gerry McNally has spent 45 years at the coal face of the Irish Probation Service starting back in 1978.


“CAPTURE ‘EM, NAIL ‘EM, jail em” will not solve the problem of repeat offenders but including them in the community can positively move people away from a life of crime, Ireland’s most experienced Probation Service officer has said. 

Gerry McNally has spent 45 years at the coal face of the Irish Probation Service, starting all the way back in 1978.

He has spent that time working in the courts and the prisons and found himself trying to set people back on a straight track.

He reached the level of Assistant Director with ‎responsibility for research projects, policy briefings and special international projects. He’s also a former President of the Confederation of European Probation (CEP).

It has been a long journey from his Monaghan upbringing and his degree in English, philosophy and psychology. That degree led him to teaching for two years but an interest in probation and the law led him to take a second degree in social sciences. 

He had no desire to become a social worker but was fascinated by the growing Irish interest in probation. 

A riot in Mountjoy in 1971 saw then Justice Minister Dessie O’Malley work to find a different way of managing prisoners and to grow the Probation Service. McNally joined in 1978 and spent the rest of his professional life working in the area.  

He has seen Ireland transform over the years and witnessed the societal impact of the heroin epidemic on the streets of Dublin in the 1980s and to the present era of organised crime mixed with the apparent hopelessness of drug addiction. 

In those 45 years of service he said the greatest skill is dealing with people in the criminal justice system not as individuals to isolate but as people to be included in communities.

McNally believes fundamentally that his role is separate from that of the gardaí.

“Your purpose as a probation officer is about helping people change their behaviour – that the focus. So you’re actually working for the betterment of the community and the betterment of the individual.

“And you work in partnership – you’re supervising the person on behalf of the court. You’re exercising authority yes but there is no benefit for us to be dealing with them in a capture ‘em, nail em, jail ‘em way,” he said.

The Probation Service is an agency of the Department of Justice, and defines its role as working to reduce offending, create safer communities and fewer victims through offender rehabilitation.

Rehabilitating offenders to achieve and maintain positive change is at the core of the work carried out by the staff at The Probation Service.

The Probation Service comprises 270 Probation Officers who are supported by Probation Assistants.

A total of 500 people work for the Probation Service nationwide and it has an annual budget of €50 million.

Critical thinking

McNally said critical to that work there is a need for critical thinking, not just towards the people he is tasked with monitoring but also his own work. 

He said that key to that is the practice of probation officers moving in their roles every four or so years to “keep it fresh”. 

“You don’t have to question everything, but you have to make sure that you have tested out the ideas. You have to be aware, but you also have to be critical of how you’re thinking and that you’re not just thinking in a program way. You almost have to be able to do everything fresh and avoid falling into routines,” he added. 

Those routines, he said, can be caused by spending years in the prison system working with offenders. McNally said it took him a number of years to stop approaching cases in an institutionalised way. 

Probation officers appear in court daily where they present reports and interact with gardaí and judges. They also meet offenders inside prisons and in the communities where they live.

IMG_7722 (1) Gerry McNally. Niall O'Connor / The Journal Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

Mcnally said this is facilitated by working with the “entire community” from local organisations, school attendance officers, social workers and gardaí.

“It’s a partnership, but everybody knows each other’s role. And you have to have clear boundaries. 

“That’s where I would stress that from the very beginning that the core business of probation is in the community – it’s about being enmeshed in the community about being part of the community,” he added. 

McNally stresses repeatedly throughout the interview that the probation officer has a completely different role than a garda. 

His view is that in changing an offender’s outlook around committing crime that he is helping the victims – to dissuade a convicted criminal away from committing crime again is the goal. 

McNally said this is achieved by using psychology and techniques to help people “change culture”.

Lessons to be learned

There are lessons to be learned, he said, from other jurisdictions, particularly in England and Wales, where a focus on the punitive has replaced the holistic methods that McNally believes work for the betterment of communities. 

He said the tragedy of the UK is that it was once the model for every other jurisdiction to follow but that changed 20 years ago because of a populist perspective from political leaders both in Labour and the Tories.

McNally believes it will take 20 years for British practitioners to try and get back what they lost. 

“It went from being the model adopted across Europe to the example of the model that you don’t want to do.

They are now more focused on enforcement, and risk management but that is a fundamental difference to the Irish approach of rehabilitation.

“The British model is not about rehabilitating people, it’s about restricting and controlling people. So it moves from a degree of partnership to actually much more overt, it’s almost like policing, which isn’t our role,” he said. 

McNally said it was a warning for those who would recommend the lock them up and throw away the key model beloved of populist tough on crime exponents. 

“It was a cultural shift – both under Labour and the Conservative in England in the 1980s and the 1990s.

“I think anybody who’s worked in the criminal justice system see that being tough, doesn’t necessarily bring about results. You don’t scare people straight. You don’t punish people straight and prison doesn’t necessarily make people better and deterrence works for about 20 minutes,” he explained. 

McNally believes the key to changing offending behaviour is about showing people a different way to live. 

“If you treat people badly how can you expect them to show respect back.

“It’s all about trying to not just teach people respect. There is a big thing that needs to be done and that is to give people hope.

“Most people don’t want to go to jail. Most people want to live a decent life. A lot of people don’t know how to live a decent life, because they have never had that experience and most people want to go straight. Yeah. Sooner or later. Yeah. But they don’t know how – what we try to do in Ireland is give them the tools to do that,” he added.  

90167244_90167244 Inside an Irish courtroom. Rollingnews Rollingnews


The statistics from the Probation Service is a fascinating snapshot of those who commit crime in Ireland. 

Offenders are for the most part men, at 84%, and 16% are women. They are 92% adults and 8% young people under the age of 18.

The top offences in order of most referrals are drug offences, assault, theft, public order road traffic and burglary. 

McNally is now facing into retirement but said that he will continue to work on international projects. 

His key takeaway from 45 years of working with the disaffected: ”Not changing is the biggest sin in the world. If the guy on probation isn’t changing we can’t blame them for not changing if we don’t change, we have to upscale ourselves and learn to do things differently.”

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