Probation officers oversee individuals sentenced to probation for committing crimes that don't warrant a jail or prison term. In some states, probation officers are also parole officers, monitoring offenders who need to be monitored after they have been released from prison. Their job is to supervise and guide these individuals as they re-enter society to pursue education, employment and family life.
The job can be very stressful and expose officers to the dark side of human behavior. On the other hand, many probation officers find it rewarding to help individuals get their lives back on track. In that sense, the role a probation officer plays in society is similar to that of a social worker.
Day in the Life of a Probation Officer
Probation officers, also known as community supervision officers, wear many hats. They are required to enforce the laws of the state; but they also need to be sensitive to the needs of their clients and the clients' families and do everything possible to put them in a better position to succeed.
Probation officers usually work in juvenile, adult or family divisions of probation departments. Their duties may vary depending on whether the position is at the local, state or federal level — but they revolve around supervision, providing social resources, and reporting to the court.
- Monitor offenders that have been released from incarceration
- Supervise and investigate defendants who have not yet been sentenced to a term of incarceration
- Meet with offenders to monitor their whereabouts or check on electronic tracking devices
- Investigate violations of court-ordered sentences
- Test offenders for drugs or substance abuse
Social resource duties:
- Counsel offenders and their families to help them locate resources for employment, housing, education or therapy
- Develop rehabilitation programs for offenders and evaluate their progress
- Visit clients at home or at their workplace
- Develop and maintain a case folder for each offender
- Report to the courts on each client's progress and whether a client is fulfilling court-ordered restriction
- Investigate an offender's background to support a recommendation for a specific restriction plan for certain offenders
- Write pre-sentence reports for judges
- Testify at parole board and pretrial hearings to provide clarification on issues before the judge
Important Characteristics for Probation Officers
Ideally, probation officers have excellent communication and interpersonal skills which enable them to interact with a wide variety of people, including defendants and probationers, probationers' family members, victims, treatment providers, attorneys and judges. They must also have a firm grasp of the law, proficiency with computers, an ability to seek facts, make decisions, and present information fairly and objectively.
Probation officers are typically required to have a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, social work, psychology or a related subject. If a candidate doesn't have related work experience, an employer may require a master's degree. What counts as related experience varies by employer but may include pretrial services, probation, corrections, criminal investigations, parole, counseling, social work and substance abuse treatment.
It is also wise to do an internship in the court system (whether federal, state, district, probate or juvenile courts). This can provide experience and help you decide what division of the court you prefer the most. Typically, candidates must also pass oral, written and psychological examinations.
Most candidates must also complete a probation officer training program sponsored by the federal government or their state government, after which they may need to take a certification test. Typically, probation officers work as trainees or in a probationary period for up to a year before they are offered a permanent job.
(Note: Individuals convicted of felonies may not be eligible for employment in this field.)
Seasoned probation officers share the voice of experience with these career tips:
- Take courses in family dynamics and child development. Work or volunteer in daycare centers, afterschool programs, or YMCAs for a full understanding of child-related issues. This background may be helpful as you interact with your clients and their families, or with juvenile offenders.
- Pursue healthy outlets in your spare time. Being a probation officer can be stressful, and you need to take care of your own mental and physical health.
- Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/probation-officers-and-correctional-treatment-specialists.htm
- Summary Report - Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, O*NET OnLine, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/21-1092.00