What is a Probation Officer?

A probation officer is a law enforcement official who supervises criminals who have been released from incarceration but who are still under the control of the criminal justice system. POs work at city, county, and state levels and have legal and sociological training in rehabilitation and powers of arrest and detention.

While the majority of the public considers probation officers as merely supervisors of offenders, their role within the legal system is significantly broader and more complex.  Most probation officers do not get involved only after a probation sentence has been handed down but may provide input to prosecutors, judges and court officials long before the trial begins.  In many jurisdictions, probation officers also adopt the role of parole officer, which oversees the re-entry of ex-convicts into society.

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Because the responsibilities of a probation officer are so similar to a correctional officer or law enforcement official, many states now commission probation officers to carry firearms and execute arrests.  Many probationers and parolees do present a higher risk of violence so these powers have been granted as a result of industry pressure on local and state organizations.

Probation Officers that Provide Pre-Trial Services

While there are some jurisdictions which employ pre-trial services officers, including the federal government, the majority of local and state judiciaries charge probation officers with these pre-trial responsibilities.

Investigations – Although law enforcement and prosecutorial officers will conduct the majority of investigations into an offender’s past, probation officers are expected to investigate the offender using legal documents or a parallel investigation.  This may involve in-depth interviews with the offender regarding

  • Family
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Finances
  • Mental and physical health
  • Chemical dependencies

Probation officers often discuss these issues with significant others, family members, employers and other social contacts as well.  While  this may appear redundant given the role of other investigative personnel, but probation officers are less concerned with guilt or innocence and more interested in whether the offender presents a serious risk to themselves or others if released.

Reports – Once the probation officer has obtained a clear understanding of the offender’s propensity for anti-social behavior, they prepare a bail report recommending continued detention or release in advance of a trial.  This report is submitted to the judge as well as prosecutors and defense counsel.  The report also includes the probation officers suggestions regarding the terms of the release including

  • Bail terms
  • Drug testing
  • Electronic monitoring
  • Employment conditions
  • Mental health treatment

Supervision – If a defendant is granted bail, they must remain under the supervision of a pre-trial officer.  Probation officers who assume these duties must exert special care in these duties, as the stresses upon defendants awaiting trial can lead to irrational behavior including violence or attempted flight. To minimize the risk of flight, most defendants are required to wear a GPS tracking device, but these must be monitored continuously.  Probation officers usually supplement electronic monitoring with phone calls and visits to ensure that the defendant is adhering to court stipulations and is healthy.

Probation officers may also utilize the defendant’s social network of family and friends to help monitor them.  They may also make recommendations about drug or psychological treatment programs that the judge has mandated.

Probation Officers Focused on Probation Services

Probation officers are the primary community supervisor for offenders who have been sentenced to probation instead of imprisonment.

Supervision – Probation officers prepare for this role by obtaining a clear understanding of the terms of probation from the judge or court officials.  In most jurisdictions, probation officers role is two-fold: to ensure that the offender abides by the court’s terms and help rehabilitate the offender so that future anti-social behavior does not occur.

The probation officer then communicates the exact details of the terms of probation to the probationer along with the likely consequences of violating them.  Probation officers usually employ investigative techniques like interviewing employers and family to ensure that the probationer is not engaged in illicit behavior. Random visits, drug tests and phone calls help monitor them.

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Rehabilitation – The rehabilitative aspects of their job usually includes finding constructive social outlets like jobs, school or community activities.  If the offender attributes his criminal behavior to the influence of drugs, alcohol or certain associates, a variety of treatment options can be introduced.  Removing a probationer from an unhealthy environment like abusive family or criminal associates may require relocation.

Parole – While most jurisdictions do not necessarily overlap probation and parole professions, in states where probation officers are commissioned law enforcement, this is more likely.  Parole officers provide many of the services that a probation officer does along with resources for meeting the terms of the parole like active employment, community service and residential treatment. Parole officers must also shoulder the added responsibility of helping parolees adjust to life outside of detention facilities. For parolees who have served long or difficult periods of incarceration, re-integration into normal society may be particularly challenging.

Parole officers must be alert to changes in behavior which could lead to a parole violation.  They must remain in constant contact with the parolee as well as the parole board.  If there is a violation, then the supervising officer is expected to arrest the parolee or immediately contact local law enforcement.

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