How to become a probation officer

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What is a probation officer?

Probation is given by a judge for a fixed amount of time to someone convicted of a crime in lieu of jail time.  The main duties of a probation officer is to ensure that the individual on probation stays in good standing and does not violate any conditions that have been set by the judge. Some of these conditions might be weekly drug tests, home visits by probation officers, obtaining a job within a specific time period, DNA collection, and attending group meetings.

Being a probation officer can be a very fulfilling job because these individuals aid in the rehabilitation of offenders and can potentially transform their lives for the better. Although it is the judge who sets the conditions of probation, probation officers are tasked with designing a plan to execute the best possible outcome for a probationer.

The role of a probation officer

On a day to day basis, probation officers are tasked with maintaining and updating case records on current offenders they are working with, as well as preparing new case files for those incoming offenders. They may schedule random drug tests to ensure the offender is complying with their given conditions, collect DNA samples, or arrange interviews for job openings for offenders.  In addition, they can call for in-person meetings with offenders to discuss current issues and strategies to reduce the risk of recidivism.

Onboarding of new probationers may include an interview process with friends and family to provide more insight on the offender, looking at the offender’s previous criminal history (if any), and developing the best course of action to rehabilitate the offender. For example, after looking through a new probationer’s criminal history, a probation officer may notice that there is a history of domestic violence and drug abuse. They may then recommend anger management classes and a drug abuse clinic to address these behaviors. The probation officer can require proof that the individual is attending these courses, including checking with the establishment or agency to ensure the meetings are being attended and the requirements are being met.  

Monitoring the progress of offenders and keeping track of their requirements can maximize the chance of a successful probation period. Should the offender not keep up with the conditions of their probation— for example receiving a positive drug test or not checking in with their probation officer— it is the officer’s duty to report this negative behavior to the court. Probation violations can result in fines, more probation time, and even jail time. Probation is an alternative to jail time, but if an offender cannot cooperate and follow their conditions, probation can be revoked, and jail time can be given. The last thing a probation officer wants to do is report someone on their caseload as it is their job to make sure the individual doesn’t return to their old behaviors. Probation officers typically want to guide offenders to change and  make better life decisions to avoid any additional run-ins with the law.

Many juvenile offenders are given probation as a form of punishment for crimes they commit. The reason being based in the hope that this form of supervision can help avoid recidivism and becoming an adult offender. Probation can benefit youth offenders since they are not always fully aware of the consequences of their actions. Rather than sentence them to jail time, judges may order juvenile offenders to complete probation, which can have stipulations similar to a probationary period for an adult offender.

In some cases, the juvenile offender may be ordered to continue their schooling, whether that be middle school or high school. A probation officer may then work with the school to ensure that education requirements are being met, such as maintaining a specific grade point average, completing projects, and participating in after school activities. Probation is intended to keep offenders out of jail and giving juveniles a chance to reevaluate their decisions and change their mindset can be an effective tool to keep them out of jail.

What type of people become probation officers?

Being a probation officer takes a special kind of person. This type of job does not come easy, and requires schooling, certifications, and training. You may be required to work long hours, including weekends. You may even be on call for certain situations, at all hours of the night. Although demanding, it is an extremely rewarding profession.

In this role, you are tasked with turning offenders into law abiding citizens who have a new outlook on life and a better grasp on their decision-making skills. You can have a meaningful impact on someone and gain a sense of achievement knowing you did everything possible to help them become a better version of themselves.

However, not all cases end in a victory. The decision to change is ultimately up to the offender, and regardless of the amount of time and work a probation officer puts into a case, it may not turn out as planned.  As such, this career can suit someone who does not dwell too hard on the losses, and is able to retain a positive outlook.  

Skills needed to become a probation officer

Being a probation officer requires a strong set of skills in the following areas:

  • written and verbal communication
  • problem solving
  • collaboration
  • relationship building
  • planning

Probation officers work one-on-one with offenders making it crucial that they can clearly communicate their responsibilities and the conditions of the probation. Because the individuals on probation may not always be willing to listen, being able to build a relationship with them and gain their trust is important. Hence, someone with a background in social work, psychology or counseling may thrive in this occupation. When the offender is able to trust the probation officer, it is more likely that they will listen and abide by the rules.

Becoming a probation officer is a great way to join the law enforcement field, while simultaneously taking on a role akin to social work. Like a typical law enforcement career, you must be stern and rigid enough to handle the job, accept the risks that come with it, and be prepared for the unexpected.

A good probation officer can elect to dive deeper into the factors that contributed to the offender resorting to crime. They can analyze the environmental, social and emotional factors that were present, and with this awareness determine the best plan of action for the probationer.

Probation versus parole

The difference between probation and parole confuses many people. Probation is as an alternative to jail time, where an offender is under court supervision and must adhere to the conditions of their probation. Parole is granted when an offender has completed their jail time, or is conditionally released from jail after successfully appealing to parole board.

Although probation and parole officers have similar roles and duties, there are some important differences.

pencil-alt Similarities

Both probation and parole officers work with offenders to help them reestablish their lives in the community after they have been convicted of after committing criminal offenses. Both occupations work within the criminal justice system and typically require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as social work, psychology or criminal justice. They also require specific certifications, training and experience in field work. Both probation and parole officers are tasked with making sure that the offenders do not violate the terms and conditions of their parole or probation.

The typical salary of the both occupations does not differ significantly.  The base salary for a  probation officer or a  parole officer  is approximately $44,000. Due to the fact that crime is a constant with a stream of criminals continually entering and being released from jail,  probation and parole officers are equally in demand. The estimated job outlook for both occupations is 4%, which is the median outlook for any occupation.

puzzle Differences

The occupations can be differentiated due to discrepancies in their client groups. Probation officers work with individuals who are not incarcerated,  and parole officers work with individuals who have served time in jail.  People who have been incarcerated may have increased needs – and their crimes are typically more serious than the crimes committed by individuals who were granted probation.  Moreover, being imprisoned can have a serious mental and emotional impact on an offender, resulting in issues with communication related to their ability to listen and follow instructions.

How to become a probation officer

Probation officers generally work for the state or federal government and often require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.  Prospective probation officers undergo an evaluation to check that they meet the specific requirements of the position.  Requirements may differ according to the state or agency.

As the main responsibility of a probation officer is to help their clients effectively reenter society, a clear understanding of the criminal justice system is a prerequisite which can be met with a relevant bachelor’s degree.  Degrees vary although the most relevant for this line of work are in behavioral science, criminal justice, social work, psychology, and criminal law. For instance, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice can provide a prospective probation officer with the ability to identify and explain criminal behavior patterns.  This degree can also teach research methods for criminology and the psychology behind criminal behavior.

After the completion of a bachelor’s degree, some states may require an applicant to gain general work experience before they are able to enter the field, either as an intern or a specified number of hours working in a related area. 

Before being able to sit the certification test, a few more steps must be taken.  Probation officers must by U.S. citizens, no older than 37 at the time of submitting the application, and of decent moral character — that is, you cannot be a convicted felon.  After these requirements are checked, the next step is to pass a written test. 

In general, the test for certification for a probation officer is comprised of the following 3 sections:

  • written communications
  • reading comprehension
  • probation concepts

Applicants can look at older tests and online study guides to prepare for the official test.  Most states also require that applicants also pass a psychological test and a physical exam. Following these assessments, a mandatory background and criminal check will be implemented to ensure a clean record and absence of prior convicted felonies.  As last step, a drug screening is conducted.

Probation officers who work primarily with juveniles need to earn several professional or safety-related certifications. These certifications supplement the traditional training  required to be a probation officer.  Along with these certifications, most states also stipulate that juvenile probation officers hold and maintain first aid and CPR certifications. 

For probation officers looking to advance their career further into a supervisory role, earning a master’s degree in criminal justice or a related field can take you towards this goal. Along with a supervisory role, the promotion is generally accompanied with a wage increase.  A graduate degree can further expand your knowledge and understanding of many aspects the criminal justice field.  With a better understanding of theories behind criminology, policing, corrections, judicial studies, and policy analysis, you can be well prepared for an expanded role as a probation officer.

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists salary information by state

Nominal
Real salary
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The nominal salary is the unadjusted salary paid.

The real salary is adjusted to consider the purchasing power by state. We multiply the nominal salary by a state purchasing parities index to indicate the relative value of salaries by state. For instance, while New York or California might pay the highest nominal salary, these states are relatively expensive and so the real value of the salary is often less than a cheaper to live in state with a lower nominal salary.

BLS
Payscale
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When available we provide 2020 state level salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earnings to provide the range of salary experienced by each career. Salary data is aggregated from the actual reported income of the US labor force, and is considered the most trustworthy data source for salary information.

Payscale is a salary survey service meant to provide employers and employees with salary data at local levels to benchmark and compare. While Payscale has a much smaller sample size than BLS, Payscale does update more frequently so data may be considered fresher. Payscale also indicates salaries at a wider range of roles whereas BLS sometimes aggregates numerous professions into one category which may skew salary data. For this reason, we find Payscale to be a good secondary salary indicator. All information received from payscale is via a paid API. You can read more about payscale and their data methodology here.

Highest salary states

1.

California

$94,990

Average salary

2.

Massachusetts

$87,180

Average salary

3.

Rhode Island

$85,260

Average salary

4.

New Jersey

$77,060

Average salary

5.

New York

$72,200

Average salary

6.

Iowa

$70,890

Average salary

7.

Minnesota

$70,080

Average salary

Future outlook
future outlook tooltip icon

Future Outlook Projections are taken from the Projections Management Partnership (PMP). The PMP is funded by the Department and Labor, Employment and Training Administration, with direct support from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The PMP provides data-driven projections of future workforce needs.

90,070

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists total employment

8,200

Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists annual openings
future outlook tooltip icon

Annual openings include jobs available due to both an increase in demand, and regular employee turnover (retirees, career switchers, etc.).

3.3%

Estimated increase in Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists jobs (2018-2028)
future outlook tooltip icon

The estimated increase in jobs (2018-2028) is the increase in total jobs expected and does not consider employee turnover.

Neutral job growth-0 Neutral job growth-1 Neutral job growth-2

Neutral job growth
future outlook tooltip icon

To provide context to estimated job growth, we employ a “fire and ice” system, which compares projected career growth to the national average of 5.2%, as follows:

<-10% = 3 ices
Btwn -5 to -9.9% = 2 ices
Between -5% to-.1% = 1 ice
between 0- 5.5% = neutral
Between 5.5%-10% = 1 fire
Between 10-20% = 2 fire
>20%=3 fires

At the state level, we simply sort the states from fastest growing to slowest within the particular career, or 1st to 50th.

The fastest growth states

1.

Utah

+16.3%

2.

Colorado

+15.1%

3.

Maryland

+11%

4.

Montana

+9.4%

5.

Arkansas

+8.8%

6.

Nevada

+8.7%

7.

New York

+8.2%

Last five years employment and salary
future outlook tooltip icon

We utilize historic annual BLS salary and total employment statistics to create a trend line which illustrates the job market over time for a particular career.

National

Average Wage Total employment
2016: $50,160 87,500
2017: $51,410 87,700
2018: $53,020 87,660
2019: $54,290 88,120
2020: $55,690 90,070

Going beyond your career as a probation officer

Although a job as a probation officer can be a lifetime career, there exists many other career opportunities with similar requirements.  One option is to become a law enforcement officer, a career that also deals with offenders and the criminal justice system. The benefit of this option is that becoming a police officer does not require a degree but comes with a similar salary.

For some, the social work aspect of this career is the rewarding factor – making a career as a social worker, case manager, or even a counselor an appealing career option. These occupations can work closely with offenders to help understand their underlying issues. Social work is often considered as very fulfilling job since it comes with the opportunity to build a relationship with your clientele and have a meaningful influence on their lives. The average base salary for a social worker is around $48,811 per year.

Yet another option, is to apply to law school and become an attorney.  Probation officers work closely the court system and become familiar with the proceedings. Perhaps your goal is to become a defense attorney who helps offenders avoid jail time, or a judge who decides on sentencing.  In going to law school,  the possibility to work in the court system and advocate for alternative methods to discipline offenders is apparent. The average annual base salary for a lawyer is $86,401, with variations dependent on where you live, work, and your experience.

Is this career for me?

Becoming a probation officer is no easy task, but it can come with a wonderful sense of achievement. If you are interested in a career where you can help people to change their behavior and become better versions of themselves, a probation officer may be the job for you. There is ample room for growth through education, similar careers and experience. For individuals interested in law enforcement, sociology, and psychology - a career as a probation officer can be the perfect mix to match your interests.