The idea of probation originated from a Bostonian shoemaker named John Augustus in the mid nineteenth century. He persuaded judges to suspend punishment of guilty criminals. In exchange the offenders promised to reform their conduct. They were given a trial period to do so. As the nineteenth century drew to a close the US justice system saw a need to try minors separately from adults. The system did not want to impose the same strict sanctions on young offenders as those meted out to adults. The keepers of the law were of the opinion that youthful lawbreakers were in dire need of a guiding hand rather than punishment in order to reform their behavior.
The current juvenile court system arose from this separation adult and youth delinquents courts. The juvenile court adopted a guiding principle – the welfare of the child must be safeguarded in all cases and supersedes any other interests. This does not mean that there was no attempt to correct the minor. The difference was that the juvenile courts favored community based penalties. This is still the criteria by which all courts for minors pass judgments. Massachusetts had probation officers in adult courts in the nineteenth century. The juvenile courts in Chicago though, were among the first to work hand in hand probation officers. The success of probation officers in juvenile courts encouraged their usage in adult courts as well. (Canton & Hancock, 2007, p. 232-233)
This paper will explain the functions of probation officers; their skills training and education they undergo; their daily routine and challenges that they face.
Probation officers work at different levels of government: federal, state, municipal, or county; while others are attached to courts. They work routinely with judges, other court professionals, attorneys, police force, prison services, health workers, community and religious leaders. Their objectives are to: investigate and oversee the progress of lawbreakers who have been let off on probation or parole and are serving community sentences under varied conditions.
Probation services are integral to the criminal justice system. Officers regularly employ electronic monitoring techniques and drug testing to engender offender compliance. Some of these officers undergo firearm training and are licensed to carry weapons. They can keep the peace or even arrest wrongdoers. They essential act as advisors to the court: by following up closely on probationers; assessing risks that these offenders may pose to society; where necessary thwart any attempts by parolees and probationers to harm the public or themselves; and if these measures fail find further correctional treatment for the offenders. (Warner & Sweatman, 2001, p. 215)
The roles of probation officers can be grouped into two: pre-sentencing and post sentencing.
Pre-sentencing functions involve conducting of thorough investigations into the criminal and the crime. In other words, the court orders the probation officer to find out the context of the crime, the background and personality of the offender. The methodology of gathering this vital information is a combination of interviews of offender’s family, friends and associates including legal representation; review of documents; and home visits.
The first method entails gathering written or recorded personal, physical and mental health, social, and economic history in a face to face encounter with the delinquent. Secondly, probation officers retrieve all personal and public records that the offender has in his possession. This collected information is reviewed, verified, interpreted, assessed, and compiled into a report which becomes the case file of the offender. This report is handed over to the court. The pre-sentence report has to be organized and objective because it is crucial in assisting in court decisions in areas meting out corrections.
It recommends a fitting punishment that facilitates rehabilitation of the offender. Copies are always stored for further reference. Home visit are conducted concurrently with the other two methods and observations are included in the pre-sentence report. Home visits are intended to answer three major questions? One, how does the offender live; two, how does the offender relate to his family and community; and three does the offender abuse any drugs or alcohol? (Warner & Sweatman, 2001, p.216.)
The post sentencing roles are to handle, administer and implement community orders and prison licenses under the direction of the court. This incorporates a detailed evaluation of the motive for the offending. He works in collaboration with the wrongdoer to draw up a strategy aimed at identifying and combating these motives. They regularly assess the progress of the probationer or parolee and modify these proposals accordingly. The probation officer also accords counseling services to the offender. (Canton & Hancock, 2007, p. 233)
To be a probation officer one has to have attained a Bachelors undergraduate or college degree in criminal justice, public administration, psychology, sociology, business, and criminology or human relations. They also have to have acquired at least a year’s worth of specialized experience before employment i.e. in substance/ addiction treatment, criminal investigations, pretrial services, probations or parole. Due to conflict of interest those who served as police, security officers or custodial agents are not allowed to apply.
Postgraduates in the above fields are also encouraged to apply and do not require the one year experience to qualify. Probation officers write a lot of reports; therefore they absolutely need to have excellent computer usage skills such as typing. The have to have high quality oral and written skills. Since they deal with individuals who are dangerous they are given weapon’s training and have to be extremely fit as they walk, stand and may even run a lot. They undergo extensive background checks, medical examinations and drug testing.
Due to their job they also have to go through random drug screening and fitness-for -duty evaluations. Those above 37 years cannot apply as per government regulations. Retirement age is 50- 57 years. (United States Probation Office, 2006, p 1-3) They have a one week orientation national training session and every three years at the Federal Judiciary Center in Washington and can attend conferences and seminars depending on availability of funds and time. (Torres, 1985, p. 119)
In March of 2008 a student from the University of North Carolina was murdered by two men on probation. This was on of the many crimes they committed while still on probation. Their probation officer had not seen or spoken to them in two months. The situation is more serious as she had been convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol twice. (2008). Therefore, there are many challenges that probation officers face while some are genuine others are self inflicted. It is understandable that the resources are overstretched and they have a heavy workload but they have to be competent in discharging their duties. (Blythe, 2008).
In conclusion, probation officers are critical to smooth running of the judicial system. They reduce the potential inmate population by supporting offenders in a community environment that reduces recidivism. They have saved many young people lives literally and prevented them from graduating into more serious crime or even death. However, to be a probation officer is a vocation. One should do it for the good of the offender and the public at large. It requires selflessness and dedication. One has to be patient but firm. If probation services functioned ideally they way that John Augustus intended, the word ‘repeat offender’ would forever be erased from our vocabularies. To be a probation officer is a noble calling!
Blythe, Anne. Probation Officer never met teen accused of killing student leader. (2008, April 2) Kansas City. McClatchy Newspapers.
Canton, Rob. & Hancock, David. (2007).Dictionary of Probation and Offender Management. London. Willan Publishing.
Torres, Donald. (1985). Handbook of Federal Police and Investigative Agencies. Greenwood Publishing Group.
United States Probation Office. (2006). Vacancy Announcement No. 2007-05: United States Probation Officer. Florida. United States Probation office: Middle District of Florida.
Warner, John. & Sweatman, Beverley. (2001).Federal Jobs in Law Enforcement (2nd Ed.).New