Probation officers work with either adult or juvenile offenders who have been placed on probation for some offense that didn't warrant a jail or prison term. In some states, probation officers are also parole officers, working with offenders who have been released from imprisonment and need to be monitored as they re-enter society.
Monitor the movements of offenders who have been forced to wear electronic tracking devices
Help their clients get drug/alcohol abuse counseling or job training
Report back to courts on whether the client is fulfilling court-ordered restrictions
Recommend to courts the specific restriction plans for certain offenders
Make personal visits to an offender's home, job or counseling session to monitor their clients
Test offenders for drugs or substance abuse
Write reports to the courts on their clients' progress
"Probation officers possess excellent communication skills and are able to interact effectively with a variety of people, including defendants and probationers, probationers' family members, victims, treatment providers, attorneys, and judges," said Barbara Broderick, chief of Maricopa (County) Adult Probation in Arizona. "They seek facts, make decisions, and present information with objectivity and balance."
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Earn a bachelor's degree.
Most probation officers begin their career by earning a degree in a couple of different fields, including Social Work or Criminal Justice, but probation officers need a four-year degree to qualify for a job in this field.
Complete an internship.
The length varies by state or local government, but the internship can be from 450 to 600 hours. Internships help students decide whether probation officer work is the right for them, said Les Schultz, the probation director in Brown County, Minnesota. Schultz teaches college classes for students interested in how to beome a probation officer. "This process allows students to screen themselves out of the program if they realize that it's not going to be a good fit," he said.
Get a year or more of experience in a related field.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, many states require a year of graduate study in Criminal Justice, Criminology, Social Work or Psychology.
Work in a related field.
To qualify for a job as a probation officer, many candidates gain experience working in pretrial services, drug counseling, social work or corrections. Schultz said many probation officers find they need to work a couple of years in a related field before they get a seat at the interview table for a probation officer job.
Pass applicable state or local government tests.
Job candidates employed in government roles may be required to pass written or oral tests, a psychological examination and a physical exam. Candidates also need to be at least 21 and have a valid driver's license. Agencies look for candidates who write well and write quickly and clearly.
Some states ask officers to work as trainees for a year before getting a permanent position.
States often require additional training, followed by a certification test, administered by the government.
Earn a master's degree.
Graduate degrees can help probation officers advance in their career and move into a higher-paying position.
Learn the law.
Despite the college degrees and government-administered training, probation officers can improve their knowledge of the law and court procedures through on-the-job experience. Pick the brains of more experienced officers to learn ways to better do your job. Attend formal probation officer training.
Develop key job skills.
This includes communication, time-management and decision-making skills. "It is important to learn the probation department's policies and procedures, the organizational culture, the tasks and expectations of the assignment, court procedures, statutes, community resources, and more," said Broderick. "At the same time, the officer needs to handle important, new responsibilities and get the job done. It can feel overwhelming.
Develop your leadership skills.
As you gain experience, it may help your career to take on more responsibility or a heavier workload. Officers who are successful in this way may find they can become candidates for supervisory roles.
The process of becoming a probation officer is certainly a tall order, and the job itself can be challenging too. We sat down with Les Schultz, Brown County probation director in New Ulm, Minnesota, to discuss what it takes to be really great at your job.
What qualities do all successful probation officers have?
They all have strong writing skills. That and great listening skills and effective public speaking skills. At a lot of places, there is a writing test as part of the interview process, where they have to write a three-quarter-page summary and recommendations for what a client should receive from the courts. I look for candidates to be able to spell and put a sentence together and to be able to type quickly and accurately. It's just too easy to fall behind in this job if you're not a fast, effective writer.
How do you know if you'll enjoy being a probation officer?
Minnesota, my home state, requires an internship lasting 450 hours, in the field or in a program run by a probation department. This process allows students to screen themselves out of the program if they realize that it's not going to be a good fit. They can also find out that, yes, this is a field they want to be in. I want people who really want to be a probation officer. If we are going to spend a lot of time training them, we want to know they are going to stay around. A lot of students are required to work 30 to 60 hours in a volunteer program in their sophomore year. This lets them do some job shadowing or small projects to see that this is the right road for them.
What are the biggest challenges facing probation officers just starting out in the profession?
The biggest difficulty is learning the resources that are available in their area. You have to learn who the counselors, psychiatrists, and mental health providers are, who the county jail personnel, county personnel and law enforcement officers are. There are just so many partners who we work with and it takes a while to learn everyone. This is also true if you're experienced but starting a new job in a new area.
What does the job market look like for students who are studying to become probation officers?
In our part of the country, it could be two years before they'll land a job. I've been teaching and supervising interns for about 22 years now, and for most of that time, graduates usually find they have to work in detention centers, detox facilities, jails, group homes or counseling centers for a couple of years before they get a seat at the interview table. That's not always the case, though. Recently I had two interns who landed jobs before they'd even completed the program, so maybe that's starting to change.
What is the best way to become a better probation officer and earn promotions?
I reached out to a lot to my colleagues for help. When I was a juvenile probation officer, I reached out and found someone who had a reputation for being really good at that and she mentored me and helped make me a good probation officer. I made professional decisions and earned the respect of my supervisors and the courts, and this helped me move up the ladder. It also helped that I'm involved in my community.
- American Probation and Parole Association
- American Correctional Association
Program outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum, and employment opportunities are not guaranteed.