How to Become a Parole Officer
Parole officers don’t win many popularity contests. Described by one Maryland officer as “the court’s tattle tale,” a parole officer can send people back to prison when they violate the terms of their release…and nobody likes going back to prison. Yet, parole officers are also like social workers. They can help vulnerable people stay out of prison by getting them the help they need.
In other words, there’s no bad cop and good cop. As a parole officer, you’re both rolled into one. This challenging job needs people with the right mix of interpersonal skills and good judgment to take up the role.
What Does a Parole Officer Do?
Parole officers are peace officers hired by a government to uphold the law. They are paired with convicted criminals who have been let out of prison early. To stay out of prison, the offenders must demonstrate that they can integrate into society and follow the rules of their parole.
Good parole officers are post-prison guides, linking offenders to resources they may need: a career center where they can find a job, for example, or a 12-step group to kick the drinking problem that led them down the path to prison.
Parole officers are gatekeepers to the outside world, ensuring that parolees can eventually navigate their post-incarceration lives without supervision. To remain on parole, offenders must usually keep a job and notify officers of any changes in employment, stay within a defined area, stay away from crime, not have guns or other weapons, and subject themselves to searches of their property and possessions. Parole officers are charged with verifying parolees meet these and other guidelines. That may include administering drug tests, calling employers, making home visits, and keeping tabs on the parolee regularly, sometimes electronically.
Parole officers’ powers have been described as almost “God-like.” They even have the power to kill romantic relationships. Sexual offenders, for example, typically have to notify their parole officers about whom they’re dating, and the officer can veto the relationship. The same goes for unseemly work or home situations.
Most parole officers are hired by the government, usually at the state or local level, and are paid by the parole board, which makes final decisions on who gets parole and what conditions they must meet. However, several states allow probation and parole to be outsourced to for-profit companies or private providers.
Regardless of employer, parole officers have five general tasks:
- Gathering information: You will need to understand the offender’s mental health, criminal history, and family life. Every data point – from school and work experience to friends and family – helps form a picture of the barriers people face in staying out of prison. But it also demonstrates resources they can rely on.
- Managing cases: You’ll provide referrals to programs for psychological counseling, drug treatment, or other services. You’ll also request any relevant assistance for getting the parolee into a job, into a home, and into a good place in life.
- Supervising: Be prepared to meet regularly with offenders and occasionally with their family members or employers. The goal is to ensure offenders are staying out of trouble.
- Documenting: Referrals, requests, assessments – everything is written down to create a record that may one day be used in court.
- Going to court: Most released prisoners end up back in jail, so get used to working in the court system. If a client has violated parole, you may request law enforcement make an arrest.
Parole Officer and Probation Officers: What’s the Difference?
Parole and probation officers both work with people who have been convicted of a crime. While many of their duties are the same (in some jurisdictions, such as at the federal level, officers perform both roles), the primary difference is simple: a parole officer works with people who have been released from prison. A probation officer, on the other hand, works with convicted criminals who are not sent to prison.
This means probation officers are more likely to work with nonviolent or first-time offenders who a judge believes can benefit from working, going to school, or being at home. In general, they face fewer risks to their personal safety than parole officers do. Yet they still meet a lot with their supervisees, often in their home, just like parole officers. They still administer drug tests. And they still make sure offenders are following any treatment plans for mental health issues.
Parole Officer Salary
It’s hard to find official statistics on parole officer salaries, at least on a national level, because they are grouped with probation officers. Unofficially, PayScale estimated a median salary of $44,000 as of September 2019. Because most parole officers are government workers, states typically have standard pay scales. For instance, an entry-level parole officer in Texas makes $41,704. After each year of service, they receive a pay bump.
Moreover, these scales group parole officers into classes with different pay grades. In Kansas, for instance, the Parole Officer II class takes on more difficult cases and supervises the Parole Officer I class. The extra responsibility comes with a higher salary.
In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected probation officers and correctional treatment specialists – which it groups parole officers with – would see a job growth rate of just 3% over 10 years. However, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people on parole went up 9.5% between 2006 and 2016 as the prison population slowly declined. If that trend continues, government agencies may have to hire more parole officers.
Steps to Become a Parole Officer
Government agencies set minimum requirements for parole officers. For example, in California, you must be a U.S. citizen of at least 21 years of age with normal hearing, and no felony criminal background. Once you know that you qualify, you can get started on the following steps:
- Get your bachelor’s degree: Most states require a B.A. or B.S. in criminal justice or a related field, such as criminology, sociology, or even public administration.
- Apply for a job: Individual states – as well as the federal government – run their own parole career pages. Those are good places to start searching.
- Undergo a background check: Background checks are mandatory for most corrections workers. Employers look to make sure you don’t have a criminal record, haven’t falsified your resume, and don’t have any red flags, like unpaid tickets, a history of getting fired, or poor credit.
- Pass a series of medical and psychological tests: Most of these you can’t study for. You’ll likely have to have your vision checked, get a physical, and undergo a psychological screening.
- Pass a drug test: Evidence of an illicit drug in your system could disqualify you from consideration, although employers will consider the circumstances. Even if marijuana is legal in your state, using it may torpedo your application.
- Complete classroom and field training: Before starting, you’ll likely be required to complete a training program that lasts several months. It covers a variety of skills, including firearms training, arrest protocols, domestic abuse interventions, and report writing. Once you move to the field, you’ll be supervised for a set number of hours before working solo.
Parole Officer Education Requirements
The standard path for an aspiring parole officer is to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, which is often a requirement for the job. Students in this major learn several things:
- How the different parts of the criminal justice system (e.g., police, lawyers, judges, prison workers, etc.) work and interact
- How to ethically balance crime prevention with civil liberties
- Theories behind the spread of crime and its prevention
- How restorative justice can be used in place of punishment to reconcile offenders with victims
- How to investigate crimes
Though criminal justice is not a law degree, you should be ready to take a lot of classes about the law. You’ll learn about rights granted in the Constitution, laws surrounding how evidence can be gathered and used, and laws related to criminal procedures. Bachelor’s degrees also mandate substantial general education credits, so you will be exposed to sociology, psychology, communications, and/or statistics.
If your program offers a concentration, particularly in corrections, it’s a chance to move away from the investigatory side of things to rehabilitation theories and practices. After all, that’s mostly what parole is about.
The standard bachelor’s degree takes four years of study with annual costs varying widely. State-run public universities are generally cheaper, at least for residents, and can run as low as $2,000 per year. At the other end, private universities tend to be more expensive, charging as much as $40,000 a year. However, these are just sticker prices. Prices may go way down for some students after they apply for federal, state, and institutional financial aid.
Resources for Parole Officers
American Correctional Association: The ACA is a membership organization that provides networking and professional development opportunities to professionals and students.
American Probation and Parole Association: APPA members receive a quarterly journal, Perspectives, as well as access to webinars, online training, and in-person networking events.
Grits for Breakfast: This well-maintained blog linked to Just Liberty provides a deep dive into Texas’ justice system. Posts cover parole, recidivism rates, court decisions, private prisons, and abuses of power.
National Institute of Corrections: As the learning center for the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Corrections maintains an extensive catalog of unique professional development courses, including one on how to communicate with LGBTQ offenders.
Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice: The Robina Institute, part of the University of Minnesota’s law school, regularly publishes its research on parole release and revocation.
U.S. Parole Commission: An agency of the Department of Justice, the Parole Commission maintains a comprehensive FAQ page on the federal parole process.