If you’re looking for a meaningful career, why not choose one that would enable you to make your community safer and serve your neighbors? Becoming a probation officer would do exactly that. If you’re curious about how to become a probation officer and what these professionals do, this career guide should answer your questions.
In This Article:
- What Does a Probation Officer Do?
- Is a Probation Officer the Same as a Parole Officer?
- Probation Officer Career: Requirements and Overview
- Helpful Characteristics and Skills for Probation Officer Careers
What Does a Probation Officer Do?
If you’re considering pursuing a probation officer career, you’re probably wondering, “What does a probation officer do?” Before taking a look at the specific tasks of a typical probation officer, it’s helpful to understand the underlying goals and purpose of probation.
Convicted offenders may be sentenced to a period of probation. Sometimes, offenders may be sentenced to probation following a period of incarceration. During probation, an offender works to become rehabilitated, to no longer pose a threat to society and to act as a productive member of society.
It’s the ultimate responsibility of a probation officer to guide and oversee that rehabilitative period. To that end, probation officers ensure that the offenders in their caseload adhere to the conditions of their probation. These conditions typically include the following:
- Maintaining gainful employment
- Avoiding drugs and alcohol
- Staying within a specific geographical area
- Avoiding contact with victims
- Completing any court-required treatment programs
No two days are alike for probation officers. They must spend a portion of each or most days meeting with the offenders in their caseload. For example, an offender might be required to visit the officer in the department’s office once per month, and the probation officer might need to conduct unannounced home visits periodically.
During these visits, the probation officer and offender will discuss the offender’s progress, challenges, needs and goals. Other tasks can include the following:
- Administer drug tests and send the samples to the lab for analysis
- Refer offenders to needed community resources to help them access education, vocational training, substance abuse counseling and similar programs
- Investigate alleged violations of probation
- Refer offenders who have violated the terms of their probation to the court for follow-up
- Testify in court
- Maintain case files and write reports
Is a Probation Officer the Same as a Parole Officer?
Probation officers aren’t quite the same as parole officers, although they do perform similar duties. As their job titles suggest, probation officers only work with offenders on probation. In contrast, parole officers only work with parolees.
A parolee is a convicted offender who serves time in prison and may be granted a conditional release. In a conditional release, the offender is allowed to leave prison early on parole. If the offender violates the terms of their parole, they are returned to prison to finish the remainder of their sentence.
On the other hand, a probationer is a convicted offender who has been sentenced to complete a period of supervised probation as an alternative to jail or prison. Probation is intended to rehabilitate offenders and help them get their lives back on track. Sometimes, an offender might be sentenced to a period of probation following incarceration.
Probation Officer Career: Requirements and Overview
The requirements for individuals interested in how to become a probation officer will often vary from one jurisdiction to another. It’s a good idea to research the requirements for the jurisdiction in which you would like to work before beginning the process of pursuing this career pathway.
Regardless of the requirements for your particular jurisdiction, if you’re still in high school, you can get started by meeting with your high school guidance counselor. Discuss your career goals and find out whether your school offers any courses that may be helpful for you. In particular, classes in law, history, sociology, foreign languages, psychology and literature will all make good choices.
As you approach your high school graduation date, you will want to begin researching criminal justice degree options. Depending on the jurisdiction, probation officers may be required to have a bachelor’s degree. Even if a degree isn’t a strict requirement, it is certainly preferred, as college-educated law enforcement professionals may possess stronger critical thinking skills and other important characteristics.
Once you meet all of the requirements, you may be hired as a trainee probation officer. This probationary status may last up to one year, during which time your work will be closely supervised by a mentor. If you do well, you may be offered a permanent position as a probation officer.
Earn Your Undergraduate Criminal Justice Degree
After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a probation officer is to earn your bachelor’s degree. A criminal justice or justice studies degree is a natural choice for an aspiring probation officer. This degree program will enable you to develop strong critical thinking, analytical reasoning and communication skills.
Although the specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, you can generally expect that a criminal justice degree will cover the following topics:
- Modern theories of criminology, including victimology and criminal motives
- The police, corrections and adjudication functions, with a look at their objectives, strategies, roles, interagency relationships and public perceptions
- Fundamental concepts in criminal law, such as the elements of a crime, criminal liability and governmental sanctions of criminal conduct
- The criminal procedure process as guided by public policy, encompassing topics such as crime control and due process
- Processes and strategies for conducting threat assessments, including all types of threats (natural, accidental and man-made) and the application of behavioral analysis
- The policies, practices and systems that concern community policing, with a look at the management of resources and collaborative community engagement
Any well-respected criminal justice degree program should also take an in-depth look at professional responsibility and ethics in the justice field. This course should cover concepts such as cultural awareness and sensitivity, appropriate uses of resources and ethical decision making. All law enforcement professionals, including probation officers, are in positions of considerable authority, and so an unwavering commitment to the highest ethical standards is paramount.
In addition to your academic pursuits, it can be quite helpful to gain practical field experience while still in school. Talk to your school’s student services department about local internship and job shadowing opportunities. You may be able to shadow a probation officer or work in the office, which would enable you to get an inside look at how various tasks are carried out.
Choose a Professional Focus
As you get closer to your college graduation date, you’ll need to start thinking about whether you want to become an adult or juvenile probation officer. Depending on your jurisdiction, there may be different eligibility requirements. In addition, you can expect to need to complete a different training program to work with adult offenders compared to juvenile offenders.
Both adult and juvenile offenders have their own challenges. Juvenile offenders may be less emotionally stable, and they may be affected by heartbreaking circumstances, such as parental neglect or abuse. However, some probation officers decide that they want to work with juvenile offenders because they feel called to help young people get on track toward a brighter future.
Adult offenders have their own challenges, as well, in addition to requirements that juvenile offenders lack. For example, adult offenders can be required to maintain gainful employment.
It can be a difficult decision to make. If you complete an internship or a job shadowing program during college, you’ll have the opportunity to ask your mentor or supervisor for guidance. Otherwise, you may be able to request guidance through your school’s alumni network, if available.
Complete the Requirements for Your Jurisdiction
After earning your bachelor’s degree, you’ll need to make another decision: Where would you like to work? After you’ve chosen a location, you can look up the eligibility requirements to become a probation officer in that jurisdiction. Although the requirements do vary, most jurisdictions require the following:1
- Applicants must be at least 21 years of age.
- Applicants must be U.S. citizens or legal residents.
- Applicants might need to possess, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
- Applicants must be able to pass a criminal background check.
- Applicants must pass a comprehensive drug test.
- Applicants must pass a polygraph and a psychological evaluation.
Some jurisdictions establish additional requirements. For example, Maricopa County in Arizona asks that probation officer applicants be:1
- Able and willing to work odd hours, including evenings and weekends
- Able to enter into situations in which their personal safety might be in question
- Able to demonstrate emotional stability and the ability to draw emotional boundaries
- Organized and willing to complete paperwork on a daily basis
- A person of sound moral integrity, who acts with honor and trustworthiness
- Someone who serves as a positive motivator, encouraging positive change in the offenders with whom they work
Once you determine that you can meet the eligibility requirements for your jurisdiction, you can follow your jurisdiction’s established process for applying. After you apply, you’ll go through the background check, drug testing, polygraph and psychological evaluation processes. If you successfully complete these processes, you may be extended an invitation to enroll in the formal training program.
Complete a Formal Training Program
The training programs for probation officers vary from one area to the next, in both length and content. In general, however, your training program will likely cover the following topic areas:
- Jurisdictional policies and procedures
- Court routines
- The writing of official reports
- Case management skills
- Firearms training
- First aid and CPR training
- Defensive tactics
After successfully completing the training program or academy, it’s likely that you will undergo a period of on-the-job training or field coaching. During this time, you’ll have a probationary status. You’ll likely be assigned to a supervisor or mentor, who will shadow you as you go about your job, offering guidance and feedback on your performance. Successful completion of this on-the-job training period may result in an offer of permanent employment.
Helpful Characteristics and Skills for Probation Officer Careers
Probation officers must be capable of handling challenging situations and executing sound judgment. Although you will learn all of the practical and theoretical skills you’ll need while you earn your criminal justice degree and complete on-the-job training, it can be helpful to cultivate certain characteristics and soft skills along the way. In particular, an aspiring probation officer can benefit from the following:
- Communication skills: All law enforcement professionals, including probation officers, can benefit from having strong communication skills. Note that communication skills don’t only encompass speaking skills, but also listening skills and an ability to pick up on nonverbal cues.
- Observation: Probation officers and other law enforcement professionals must be keen observers. They must be alert to potential signs of trouble, and they must be able to spot indicators that an offender may be engaging in inappropriate behavior (e.g. slurred speech that might indicate drug abuse).
- Critical-thinking skills: Probation officers need strong critical-thinking skills, which refer to the ability to think logically, draw rational connections between ideas and apply knowledge to various situations. Critical-thinking skills are essential for accurately assessing offenders and planning their rehabilitation programs.
- Decision-making skills: After considering all of the facts of a situation, probation officers must be able to make sound decisions that ignore their own personal feelings about the situation. Solid judgment is crucial for this profession.
- Interpersonal skills: It’s necessary for probation officers to establish a good rapport with the offenders on their caseload. Offenders who do have a good working relationship with their probation officers may have a reduced risk of recidivism, which refers to a relapse into criminal activity.
- Emotional stability: Probation officers must sometimes deal with challenging situations, such as offenders who may not be entirely truthful about their activities. It’s essential for probation officers to be able to set their own personal feelings aside and to always act with professional integrity.
- Social perceptiveness: Social perceptiveness is much like emotional intelligence. It refers to being aware of the reactions of other people. It also encompasses an understanding of why other people might act in a certain way.
Organizational skills are also important for these professionals. Having a probation officer career you must handle a great deal of paperwork on a daily basis. They must also be able to juggle a large caseload, often working with dozens of offenders at once.
Note, however, that not all offenders will take up a great deal of a probation officer’s time. Some offenders, such as those with severe mental health problems, will require more of an officer’s attention and energy.2
Arguably, one of the most important characteristics of a probation officer is a strong, uncompromising sense of professional ethics. Probation officers are in positions of authority over the day-to-day lives of other people. They must take care to conduct themselves in a manner befitting their professional station.
If you aspire to serve and protect your community, consider applying for enrollment at Grand Canyon University. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree, which instills strong competencies in criminal law, threat assessments, corrections and other related topics. Join the dynamic GCU learning community as an online or on-campus student.
1 The Judicial Branch of Arizona, Maricopa County, Adult Probation Officer Requirements in December 2022
2 Sage Journals, A Rapid Evidence Assessment of the impact of probation caseloads on reducing recidivism and other probation outcomes in December 2022
Approved by an instructor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Jan. 25, 2023.
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. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.