How to Become a Probation Officer

Probation officer shaking hands with convict at desk with paperwork

Probation officers play a central part in keeping communities safe. These law enforcement professionals focus on the rehabilitation of convicted offenders and oversee their successful reentry into society. To that end, probation officers act like social services professionals by connecting offenders to community resources. If you are interested in becoming a probation officer, you can get started by pursuing a criminal justice degree.

Understanding the Role

A probation officer may work at the local, state or federal level. Probation officers are responsible for supervising offenders who have been placed on probation. An offender may be placed on probation instead of serving jail time, but many serve probation after serving time in jail or prison.

Probation officers are often misunderstood as parole officers. Whereas parole officers only supervise parolees, probation officers may supervise people on parole and probation in certain jurisdictions. The difference between probation and parole is that probation is part of an offender’s original sentence. Alternately, an inmate released from prison early will be placed on parole for the remainder of his or her sentence.

Every offender placed on probation must follow certain conditions and restrictions established by the court. Probationers are usually required to acquire and maintain employment, avoid alcohol and other recreational substances and check in with their probation officers regularly. Probation officers must ensure that the offenders follow these requirements. A probation officer may also:

  • Assist offenders in enrolling in educational or vocational programs
  • Help offenders find gainful employment and appropriate housing
  • Support offenders in abstaining from recreational drugs
  • Regularly meet with offenders
  • Maintain records and documentation on each offender

If a probationer violates the terms of their probation, the probation officer must use his or her discretion when determining whether to report the offender to the court. An offender who is deemed in violation of the terms of probation must reappear in court and may be sentenced to additional legal punishments, including jail time.

Important Skills and Characteristics

Interpersonal skills and empathy can help probation officers reduce recidivism, which occurs when a former offender commits another offense and is incarcerated again. When an officer meets a new offender, it’s essential to establish a rapport. A good working relationship will enable the officer to better help the offender reestablish themselves the community.

In addition, probation officers should possess strong critical thinking and communication skills. They routinely interact with court officials, offenders, employers and family members. Probation officers should evaluate what offenders tell them through nonverbal communication cues such as body language. In addition, probation officers must be able to clearly communicate to the offenders what the expectations of the court are.

Earning an Undergraduate Criminal Justice Degree

Aspiring probation officers must earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field like criminal justice studies or criminology. Throughout your degree program, consider searching for relevant internship opportunities. For example, some county probation departments offer internships. This is an effective way to get a first-hand look at your future career. You will build professional connections that help you obtain employment after graduation.

Applying for a Position

Probation officers hold immense responsibility and discretion in the criminal justice field. Because of this, the process of applying to a position is lengthy and intensive. Applicants may be required to take a proficiency test and sit for a panel interview depending on the jurisdiction. In addition, applicants must successfully pass a thorough background check. The department may require applicants to pass a medical and psychological examination, including drug screening.

Becoming a Federal Probation Officer

The process of becoming a federal probation officer is even more rigorous than that of becoming a local or state probation officer. First, you must meet the age requirements. First-time federal probation officers cannot be older than 37. The mandatory retirement age is 57. All applicants must also meet physical fitness requirements and hold a bachelor’s degree. In addition, applicants must have prior experience as a local or state probation officer, or in some capacity in the field of criminal investigations.1

If you aspire to serve your community by becoming a probation officer, you can earn a criminal justice degree at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor's of Science in Justice Studies provides a solid academic foundation. During your studies, you will study topics such as criminal law, criminal behavior and professional responsibility in the justice field. To learn more about the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, visit our website or click on the Request Information button at the top of this page.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.

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