Legal Dictionary

probation officer

Legal Definition of probation officer


Related terms

Definition of probation officer


probation officer (plural probation officers)

  1. A law enforcement officer who supervises offenders who have been released from incarceration and, often, recommends sentencing in courts of law.

Further reading

Parole officers and probation officers play a role in criminal justice systems by supervising offenders released from incarceration or sentenced to non-custodial sanctions such as community service. In some jurisdictions parole or probation officers are involved in presenting reports on offenders and making sentencing recommendation to courts of law.

Probation officers in England and Wales

The National Probation Service is charged with supervising offenders released from custody or awarded community-based sanctions such as community service orders, and compiling relevant data regarding offender supervision. Its modern structure for the U.K. was established in April 2001 by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act. However, it has existed since the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, and the practice of placing offenders on probation was already routinely undertaken in the London Police Courts by voluntary organizations such as the London Police Court Mission - later known as the Rainer Foundation - as early as 1876. These earlier probation services provided the inspiration for similar ideas in the humane treatment and supervision of offenders throughout the British Empire and also in former colonies of Britain as missionaries and members of the British criminal justice system traveled the globe.

In modern times the duties of probation officers in the U.K. are to supervise offenders released on licence from custody, and to supervise offenders given non-custodial supervisory sentences at court. The work involves focuses on the management of risk of serious harm associated with offenders; on sentence planning and the selection and delivery of a range of interventions aimed at reducing reoffending; and on supervising, and variously devising, delivering or subcontracting schemes by which offenders having "Community Payback" sentences can discharge their requirement to perform unpaid work. Probation officers are also charged with providing a variety of reports on offenders throughout their criminal justice lifecycle, such as pre-sentence reports making recommendations on interventions likely to reduce the likelihood of reoffending or of causing serious harm; pre-release reports making recommendations on licence conditions or other interventions necessary for offenders being considered for release on licence; and parole reports advising the Parole Board of the probation service view of the offender suitability for release. Such reports will typically provide assessments of the criminal, the nature of crimes and effect on victims, the criminogenic needs and risk of serious harm associated with the individual, and will normally be based in part on an Offender Assessment System analysis. Probation officers are also responsible for the provision of regular reports to courts of the progress of offenders on orders having drug testing requirements. Additionally, probation officers will supervise a Restorative Justice plan that provides the victim of a crime an opportunity to address the impact of the crime to the offenders.

Probation officers are not law enforcement officers and do not have law enforcement powers. However they have the ability to recall to prison offenders released from custody on licence if licence conditions are breached; and to return offenders on community service orders to court for re-sentencing in the event of beaches of the terms of the order. The English & Welsh system has two levels of officer, the Probation Officer, and the Probation Service Office - the latter will normally have less training than the former, and will be limited to supervising offenders at low risk of serious harm.

Probation and parole in the United States

In the United States, there can be probation officers on the city, county, state, or federal level - wherever there is a court of competent jurisdiction. Since the abolishment of parole in the federal system in 1984, there are essentially no parole officers on the federal level in the United States. However, there is a small and decreasing number of parolees still being supervised that were sentenced before 1984, or court-martialed military service personnel and U.S. probation officers serve as parole officers in that capacity. Most jurisdictions require officers to have a four year Bachelor's degree, and prefer a Graduate degree for full consideration for probation officer positions on the federal level.

Generally, probation officers investigate and supervise defendants who have not yet been sentenced to a term of incarceration. Transversely, parole officers supervise offenders released from incarceration after a review and consideration of a warden, parole board or other parole authority. Parolees are essentially serving the remainder of their incarceration sentence in the community. However, some jurisdictions are modifying or abolishing the practice of parole and giving post-release supervision obligations to a community corrections agent, generically referred to as a probation officer. Still some others are expanding the duties to include post incarceration supervision under special sentencing such as Megan's Law offenses, civil commitments, and violent offenders. These cases involve persons who have completed their incarceration, but must be supervised under the special sentence for three years, or even life supervision as in the case with Community Supervision for Life sentencing for sex offenders. Due to the heightened danger to the public, these cases are supervised by parole officers rather than probation officers since parole officers are more commonly trained in police academies and carry firearms. Typically, probation and parole officers do not wear a uniform, but simply dress in business or casual attire. probation officers are usually issued a badge or some other form of credentials and, in some cases, may carry concealed weapons or pepper spray for self protection or serve arrest warrants. Parole officers, in many jurisdictions, are issued a badge, credentials, and firearm, and often have full police powers. Probation and parole officers who have law enforcement powers, are technically classified as peace officers, and if so, they must attend a police academy as part of their training and certification.


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