How to Become a Probation Officer
Although probation officers are sometimes seen as the “bad guy” who cracks the whip, in fact they perform an important service: to help offenders become contributing members of society. This in turn can reduce the chance that they will commit another crime.
Probation officers who work with juveniles (JPOs) have an even greater responsibility with regard to rehabilitation: preventing youth from going on to become criminals is critical to our society at large.
Read on to learn how you can enter this challenging yet rewarding field.
Probation Officer Job Description
A probation officer has two main jobs: to monitor convicted criminals who have been placed on probation and to perform presentence investigations to help judges make sentencing decisions. Probation is a type of sentencing that allows offenders to remain in society rather than going to prison—as long as they follow certain conditions.
Monitoring Convicted Criminals
Probation officers work directly with criminal offenders to ensure that they are complying with the terms of their probation. To do this they typically:
- Conduct intake of new probationers
- Explain the terms of probation and discuss goals
- Meet regularly with offenders
- Talk to family members and employers
- Monitor and report on probationers’ progress and compliance
- Recommend a course of action if terms are violated
- Screen for drugs or alcohol
Depending on the individual case, probation officers may be required to provide a variety of services to help the offender stay on the “straight and narrow.” For example, they might:
- Help a convict get employment training
- Arrange for substance abuse or mental health counseling
- Find housing
- Implement an overarching rehabilitation plan (usually created by rehabilitation specialists)
- Make referrals to various inpatient and outpatient programs and services
Probation officers need to keep detailed records of their clients’ progress and setbacks. This paperwork is essential, as it may later be used for legal purposes. In many cases, probation officers are asked to testify in court and make recommendations regarding the future of their clients’ probation status.
Performing Presentence Investigations
After a defendant enters a plea of guilty or no contest, or if a jury finds the defendant guilty, a presentence investigation report (PSIR) is ordered. A PSIR provides the sentencing judge with information concerning the defendant’s life and the circumstances surrounding the offense. The judge uses this information to make a sentencing decision.
To create a comprehensive profile of the offender, probation officers interview family, friends, past employers, and other key figures. They also conduct computer research to examine past criminal history.
The officer then writes a report that provides a summary of the offender and a detailed description of their social, criminal, and substance abuse history. They are often asked to present their findings in court testimony.
Juvenile Probation Officers (JPOs)
Juvenile probation officers work solely with juveniles who are on probation. They are responsible for monitoring the offenders according to the terms of probation. However, an even more important responsibility is to help juvenile offenders learn life skills that will help prevent them from turning into lifelong criminals.
These officers perform many of the same duties as adult probation officers. However, they often get involved in more aspects of the offender’s life, such as home, school, work, and places in the community that they frequent. A JPO might make unplanned visits to ensure that the juvenile is avoiding drugs and alcohol and abiding by curfew.
What Is the Difference Between a Probation Officer and a Parole Officer?
The main difference between a probation officer and a parole officer is when they are involved with the offender. A probation officer monitors offenders who don’t go to prison but instead are placed on probation. A parole officer works with criminals who have gone to prison but are released on parole before the end of their sentence.
However, both officers have the same overarching mission: to monitor offenders as they integrate into society, with the goal of reducing recidivism and holding them to the court’s probation or parole conditions.
The Road to Becoming a Probation Officer
Following are the basic steps for becoming a probation officer:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field of study
- While in college, find a job in the criminal justice field (such as Boys Town or working at a jail, prison, or a residential treatment facility)
- During college, complete an internship at a probation office
- Meet the requirements of your state
- Apply for an open position as a probation officer
- Go through the interview process
- Pass a background investigation
- Pass an oral and written exam as well as a psychological exam, if requested by the employer
- Get hired as a probation officer
- Get trained on-the-job once hired
Although it’s not always required, many individuals pursuing this career earn an advanced degree such as a master’s. Related work experience in corrections, criminal justice, social work, or counseling can be very helpful in securing a position. In addition, most probation officers must complete a formal training program, which often includes government or state-sponsored probation officer classes, before they can start working independently.
Probation Officer Education
There are numerous colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice. Most programs take about four years to complete if you attend school full time.
Courses may vary depending on what school you attend and the major you choose. The following list of criminal justice classes are typical of the types of courses you will take in an undergraduate program:
Introduction to the Criminal Justice System
This course covers the history and philosophy of criminal justice and ethical considerations. It also provides an overview of the three parts of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, court systems, and corrections.
In this course you will learn about the scientific study of crime, including its causes, responses by law enforcement, and methods of prevention. You will review the many different theories of criminology that result in deviant behavior.
Criminal law courses look at criminal law principles and concepts, focusing on both the procedural aspects and the substantive elements of various crimes and criminal court decisions.
Introduction to Corrections
This course examines the historical development of corrections and trends in the field. You will learn about theories of retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and other aspects of correctional reform.
Police and Society
In this course you will study the critical issues facing police officers and administrators when it comes to the relationship between police and communities. It usually emphasizes community relations in diverse societies, with a particular focus on the history of police.
Juvenile Probation Courses
Those who are studying to become juvenile probation officers will typically focus on topics such as:
- Developmental psychology
- Juvenile justice
- Juvenile forensic psychology
- Social work
- Substance abuse
- Legal system
- Public administration
- Computer systems
- First aid/CPR
Probation Officer Requirements
States (and even regions within a state) vary in their requirements for probation officers. In general, they will have basic requirements such as:
- Have a bachelor’s degree
- Be between 20 and 38 years of age
- Be in exceptional physical, emotional, and mental health (this may involve a physical examination and psychological evaluation)
- Be a U.S. citizen
- Have a valid driver’s license
- Have no felony convictions
Some states may have more stringent requirements. Florida, for example, will not accept those with a misdemeanor that involves perjury. Some counties in Ohio require officers to be fluent in a second language.
Finally, a number of states require some type of certification. This typically involves attending a certification academy and passing a state or local Civil Service Examination.
Traits of Successful Probation Officers
Being a probation officer requires you to be tough but empathetic. Other important traits and skills include:
- Communication skills: To effectively interact with criminals and legal teams and administrators, probation officers need to be good communicators. An important part of communicating involves engaging in active listening and understanding what others are saying. Probation officers must learn to read body language.
- Critical thinking skills: Good critical thinking skills allow probation officers to pick up on the validity of a convict’s argument and recognize if what they’ve said is true or false.
- Decision-making skills: Making decisions requires confidence and the ability to follow through. While not always easy, probation officers must weigh the pros and cons of a decision and implement it.
- Emotional stability: Probation officers witness a lot of tragic circumstances. They must be able to deal with difficult emotional situations in a professional setting and not let their emotions get in the way of performing their job.
- Organizational skills: Probation officers typically juggle multiple cases at once. An ability to multitask, keep detailed records, and stay on top of community resources can help them manage complex caseloads.
- Writing skills: One of the duties of a probation officer is to write regular reports that are used by the courts. An ability to write professionally enables them to effectively inform and influence judges, attorneys, and defendants.
Probation Officer Salary and Career Outlook
The mean annual salary for probation officers is $58,790, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Salary can vary according to geography and industry.
The states that offer the top five mean annual salaries are:
|State||Mean Annual Salary|
The top-paying industries are local and state governments.
Although career outlook in general for probation officers is a little slower than average, at 2% to 3%, in some states growth is projected to be faster (or much faster) than average:
Probation Officer-Related Careers
Pretrial Services Officer
Pretrial services officers determine whether the offender can be safely allowed back into the community before their trial date. They investigate the offender’s background, assess the risks, and make a recommendation to a judge. The judge then determines whether to grant probation and the bond amount. If an offender is allowed back into the community, pretrial officers supervise them to make sure they are following the terms of their release.
Correctional Treatment Specialist
Correctional treatment specialists typically develop rehabilitation plans, which are then implemented by probation officers. They meet with offenders before probation, parole, or release to determine what services they will need.
A parole officer is assigned to a parolee after their release from prison to assist them as they adjust to their transition back into society. They may help with everything from job searches to staying drug free. Parole officers are typically responsible for a large load of cases at one time.
Within the criminal justice system, social workers play a number of roles. For example, they might counsel law enforcement employees, diagnose defendants, provide information in the courts, or serve as victim advocates.
Substance Abuse or Mental Health Counselor
Substance abuse and mental health counselors advise current and former inmates who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, mental health issues, or other behavioral problems. They treat and support clients recovering from addiction or problem behaviors.
Probation Officer Resources
- American Probation and Parole Association (APPA): The goal of this organization is to reduce recidivism by providing support and resources for the corrections industry. They have a comprehensive professional training program that can be delivered onsite, online, or through a training or leadership institute.
- American Correctional Association (ACA): The ACA website provides a wide range of resources in areas such as professional development, standards and accreditation, government and public affairs, and upcoming conferences.
- Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association (FPPOA): The FPPOA provides the latest information for probation and pretrial officers at the federal level through articles and newsletters.
- Middle Atlantic States Correctional Association: This professional organization is comprised of members from CT, DE, MD, NJ, PA, NY, and DC. Their website provides news, resources, and information about scholarships and awards. They also host an annual conference.
- American Society of Criminology (ASC): The ASC is an international organization that promotes the study of crime and delinquency. They offer online articles and publications and provide employment information and job listings.
- Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc. (CALEA): Public law enforcement agencies can become accredited through the CALEA. The accreditation process is comprised of five steps: enrollment, self-assessment, assessment, commission review and decision, and maintaining compliance and reaccreditation.