Although many people assume probation officers only oversee criminal offenders on probation, they actually provide a variety of invaluable services to the larger community. Probation officers work alongside many other law enforcement and criminal justice professionals, including police, prosecutors, and other court officials to advise on sentencing and probation procedures for those convicted of crimes. Probation officers play a critical role in the criminal justice system, and help to reintegrate incarcerated individuals safely back into society. This page provides an overview of the field, including how to begin a career as a probation officer, and the job outlook for these professionals.
What Does a Probation Officer Do?
Probation officers take on a variety of roles within the criminal justice process. Prior to sentencing, they may provide pretrial advising to court officials and prosecutors. Through this advising process, probation officers may interview offenders to learn more about their lifestyles and make an appropriate risk assessment. They generally provide this assessment to court officials and use it to make recommendations regarding bail and release stipulations prior to trial. Probation officers provide supervision both before the trial if the offender receives bail, and after an offender's trial if they receive a probation sentence.
While supervising offenders on probation, probation officers make sure offenders obey all court orders. This might include frequent in-office meetings, drug testing, phone calls, and random home visits. Probation officers may also interview an offender's employer and family members to ensure that offender adheres to all terms of their probation.
The Probation Officer Job Description page offers a more in-depth look at day-to-day duties of a probation officer.Probation Officer Job Description
How to Become a Probation Officer
Steps For Becoming a Probation Officer
Step 1: Learn more about the field and determine whether becoming a probation officer suits your career goals.
Step 2: Earn a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, law enforcement, social work, or behavioral science. Individual states may require a degree in a specific area.
Step 3: Pass a competency exam provided by the state. This exam may include questions in decision-making, writing, and various concepts in probation and parole.
Step 4: Ensure you meet eligibility criteria. Candidates must be at least 21 and hold a valid driver's license. Many states also require passing a formal background check and physical and mental health exams.
Step 5: Earn a graduate degree to advance in the field.
If you want to learn more about the degree options for probation officers, you can review the following pages for detailed information: Criminal Justice Degree Page Overview and the Guide to Criminal Justice System.
Probation Officer Salary and Job Growth
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists rests around $53,000 per year. A variety of things can influence earning potential for probation officers, including geographic location, specific employers, and level of experience in the field. Data from PayScale shows an upward trend in the average salary for probation officers the longer they stay in the field. You can visit the Probation Officer Salary page to learn more about what these professionals make.Probation Officer Salary
Lizbeth Meredith is an Alaska-based author and speaker who works as a juvenile probation supervisor. Her memoir, PIECES OF ME, is currently #1 ebook in Domestic Partner Abuse on Amazon. With a bachelor's degree in journalism and a master's in psychology, Lizbeth has worked as a domestic violence advocate and child abuse investigator before working in probation.
Why did you decide to pursue a career as a probation officer?
After working for several years in victims' services as a domestic violence advocate, I knew I wanted to do more to impact the community and intervene in intergenerational patterns. As a trainer for adult probation on intervening in family violence, I was intrigued by the exciting work probation officers in my sessions were reporting on, and I knew that it was the career for me. Working in probation still meant I would work with victims of crime, but also meant I could recommend to the court what types of treatment the offender needed to repair the harm they caused and increase the chances of staying out of trouble later.
What was the job search like after earning your degree?
I did my internship for my graduate degree (psychology) at adult probation, often facilitating groups with sex offenders or other felons who were learning about thinking errors. Simultaneously, I worked as a child abuse investigator for the state, getting my foot in the door. Adult probation was set to hire me (I was told) after I revoked my application to instead work with juvenile probationers. And I've been doing it for nearly two decades.
What is your favorite part of working as a probation officer?
I enjoy the variety that the work provides. From watching a recent double homicide trial, doing home visits, working closely with victims, or giving trainings on trauma-informed care, there is never a dull moment, or a time where I wonder if what I do is making a difference. On a good day, a probationer will come into our office to say hello, years after completing probation. That tells me there was a relationship built on trust and positive regard, no matter what the crime or conduct of the probationer in the moment.
What is the most challenging part?
Working longer hours while crime is spiking with too many tasks to achieve and not enough staff to complete them. The volume of government initiatives and tools given to aid probation officers in doing their jobs has ironically made it a desk job with less human interaction. What are some essential skills an individual interested in pursuing the career must have? Critical thinking, good writing skills, assertive communicator, mediation skills, and advocate. The qualities he or she should have are tenacity, empathy, honesty, and confidence.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering pursuing a career as a probation officer?
- Shadow probation officers in your area. Ask yourself if you can handle being second-guessed or withstand scrutiny about decisions that impact the lives of so many people.
- Understand why you're interested in the job. Work in probation requires a belief in holding another accountable.
- Can you role model accountability in your own life? Are you more interested in chasing arrests than implementing rehabilitation? My opinion is that to be successful in the field, you must believe that people can change, and then be very wary as to whether or not they will.
Any final thoughts for us?
A successful probation officer will employ excellent self-care to avoid burnout, getting exercise, eating healthy, reaching out for support from coworkers or even a clinician if needed, because the opportunity for secondary trauma is real.
Take the Next Steps
Now that you know more about what goes into working as a probation officer, you can take the first steps toward beginning your career in the field. The pages below offer more detailed information about earning your associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
Criminal Justice Degree and Career Information
Learn about earning a degree in criminal justice, and the careers these graduates qualify for.
Associate Degree in Criminal Justice
Learn more about earning an associate degree in criminal justice, including standard curriculum for the program and what graduates do with the degree.
Bachelor's in Criminal Justice
More about the bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and the concentrations and careers available to graduates.
Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement
Detailed information about the bachelor's degree in law enforcement, including a sample curriculum and the job outlook for graduates.
Bachelor's Degree in Corrections
This page offers more information for those interested in earning a bachelor's degree in corrections, including choosing the right program, available concentrations, and potential careers for graduates.
Professional Organizations and Resources
Professional organizations offer aspiring and current probation officers opportunities to learn more about the field and grow their career. Generally, these organizations provide benefits like annual conferences, local chapters, and access to job boards and career services. They even sometimes offer opportunities for scholarships and awards, making them great resources for current and prospective students at all degree levels. Students may also find information about the duties of probation officers, and policy in the field. The resources below directly serve probation officers, both those practicing and those hoping to enter the field.
- American Probation and Parole Association This association of probation and parole officers aims to advocate for professionals in the field through advocacy and research. Members have access to professional development opportunities.
- Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association As the only association dedicated to federal probation and pretrial officers, this organization offers awards, scholarships, and opportunities to serve in leadership roles.
- American Correctional Association The American Correctional Association serves those working in corrections, including probation officers. Members have access to professional development and continuing education, leadership opportunities, and conferences.