Probation officers are vital members of America’s criminal justice system who help ensure public safety through effective supervision of convicted criminals. Almost all judicial districts across the country maintain a robust probation system designed to divert low risk offenders from overburdened prison facilities. Probation allows these offenders to serve out their sentence while remaining in society, so as to maintain productive lives and pay restitution to victims and the community.
Protecting society from criminal activity while assisting troubled offenders through rehabilitation makes working in community corrections very rewarding. As an important part of the American criminal justice system, probation officers must have a strong educational background that prepares them to work with law enforcement professionals, judges and attorneys. They must also be prepared to interact with the less appealing elements of society including the violent, uneducated and amoral.
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Becoming a Probation Officer: Education, Certification and Training
College Degree – Almost all judicial districts that hire probation officers require job candidates to have a bachelor’s degree at minimum, and many require or suggest a master’s degree. The most common majors among probation officers are:
- Criminal justice
- Social work
In some states the educational requirements for probation officers may be equal to or greater than those of police officers. In fact, many states actually grant peace officer status to probation officers. In these states, probation officers are expected to fulfill the same requirements as commissioned law enforcement professionals, which includes completing the state’s police academy training.
Basic Requirements – Virtually all states and judicial districts will only hire probation officer job candidates that meet these basic requirements:
- Between 20 and 38 years of age
- Superior physical, emotional and mental health
- U.S. citizenship
- Valid driver’s license
- No felony convictions
Application Process – Many probation officer jobs are only available if there has been a job posting, while some organizations may accept applications throughout the year. Most organizations request that the following documents be submitted with the completed application:
- College transcripts
- Detailed resumes
- Military service documents
- Law enforcement service documents
In judicial districts that do not require a college degree, a basic skills examination may be administered to determine the candidate’s competencies in written communication and math. An interview with the judicial human resources manager is also part of the hiring process.
Pre-employment Testing and Certification – Most judicial districts require probation officers to have impeccable backgrounds, and many require certification, which involves passing a state, city or district-specific Civil Service Examination. In order to ascertain that candidates satisfy the necessary character qualifications, a thorough background investigation is conducted. Candidates must also pass a drug test prior to being hired and at random points throughout their careers.
A medical evaluation will be administered to ensure that no disqualifying health factors are present. A psychological assessment will also be conducted to certify that the candidate has the emotional and psychological disposition necessary to perform professional duties.
Training Academy – Newly hired probation officers are expected to complete a training program that introduces them to basic procedures and skills before beginning work in the field. There are considerable differences in the training programs from one jurisdiction to the next. In some states, all new hires are required to complete a state certification program in order to become probation officers, while other states allow each judicial district to determine the components of their own training programs.
In states or judicial districts where probation officers are required to complete peace officer training, programs may be up to six months in length and include rigorous academic and physical skills training. These training programs are usually held at state police academies and often include training in:
- Report writing
- Firearms training
- Self-defense tactics
- Constitutional law
In other judicial districts, the training regimen may be smaller in scale and more tailored to the specific duties of the probation officer. Completion of these training programs is typically required within a year of being hired.