Probation officers exist at every level of government where there is a functioning court, acting as enforcement agents. They are often confused with parole officers, but the difference is that parole officers supervise convicted offenders after they are released from incarceration (prior to serving their full sentence), while probation officers supervise defendants who have not yet been sentenced or who are sentenced to probation instead of prison.
The current trend in the field of corrections, however, is to combine the supervisory functions of the parole officer with those of the probation officer, creating a single community corrections agent, usually referred to as a “probation officer.”
Success as a probation officer requires several key skills, among them a broad knowledge of the criminal justice system and the responsibilities of its various branches. Understanding the legal requirements of probation and parole is also a must.
A probation officer typically performs one of two roles in relation to the criminal offender: counselor or supervisor. When an offender is incarcerated, the probation officer assists in the development of parole, release and rehabilitation plans. In a typical day, job duties of probations officers can include the following:
Because probation officers work with criminal offenders, the job can often be stressful and occasionally dangerous. Court-imposed workloads can be heavy, and the officer might be required to work odd hours to counsel offenders. Some officers might be required to carry a firearm. Even given these drawbacks, many find the work of assisting offenders to become good citizens genuinely rewarding.
Candidates should be in good physical and emotional condition, over 21 years old (under 37 for federal positions) and have a clean criminal record.
Most probation officers are employed by state or local governments, but some federal positions exist. Positions for probation officers are projected to grow “about as fast as the average for all occupations” during the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The BLS reports that in 2007, the average annual salary for probation officers was approximately $44,510, with a probation officer salary range running from a low of $28,400 to a high of more than $75,790.