8.3. Probation

David Carter and Kate McLean

Probation is arguably the oldest, and certainly the most common, of the intermediate sanctions. Its roots stem from concepts of common law from England, like many of our other correctional practices in the U.S. In early American courts, a person was able to be released on their own recognizance, if they promised to be responsible citizens and pay back what they owed (financially or morally). In the early 1840s, John Augustus, a Boston bootmaker, was regularly attending court and began to supervise such individuals as a “Surety”. A Surety was a person who guaranteed or paid individuals’ bond, or the money necessary to secure their release awaiting trial. In turn, Augustus, pictured below, would take in many of these individuals, providing them with work and housing, to help ensure that they would remain crime-free and pay back society. He continued this practice for nearly two decades, effectively becoming the first probation officer.


John Augustus

Today, probation is a form of a “suspended” sentence, meaning that, instead of serving a certain period in jail or prison, an offender is allowed to serve that same period of supervision in the community. However, the sentence is only suspended subject to certain conditions that the offender must continue to meet; if they deviate from those conditions, they may be ordered to finish their sentence in jail or prison. Conditions of probation often include: reporting to a probation officer, submitting to random drug screens, not “consorting” with known felons, paying court costs and restitution, attending AA or NA courses, among other conditions. Probation lengths vary greatly, as do the conditions of probation placed on an individual. Almost all people on probation will have at least one condition of probation. Some have many conditions, depending on the seriousness and nature of their conviction. Juvenile probation departments were established within all states in the 1920s, and by the middle of the 1950s, all states also had adult probation.

Probation Officers

Probation officers usually work directly for the state or federal government, but they can also be directed through local or municipal agencies. Many counties will have a community justice level structure where probation offices operate. Within these offices, probation officers will be assigned cases (caseload) – probationers – that they will manage. The volume of cases in a probation officer’s caseload can vary from just a few clients (if they are high need/risk), to several hundred probationers. This depends on the jurisdiction, the structure of the local probation office, and the abilities of the probation officers themselves.

The role of the probation officer (PO) is complex, and sometimes contradictory. A PO’s primary function is to ensure the compliance of individuals with the conditions of their probation. This is done through check-ins, random drug screenings, and enforcement of other conditions that are placed on the probationers. Additionally, the PO may go out into the field to serve warrants, do home-checks for compliance, and even make arrests as needed.

At the same time, a probation officer is trying to help individuals on probation succeed. This is done by trying to help individuals get jobs, improve their education, or enter into substance or alcohol treatment programs (among other things). This is why the job of the PO is complex: they must be supportive, while also enforcing compliance. Recently, there has been a movement within probation to have probation officers act more like coaches than just disciplinarians, an approach that may be associated with less probation revocation and recidivism.

Another primary function of a probation officer is to complete PSI reports on individuals going through the court process. A PSI or Pre-Sentence Investigation report is a psycho-social investigation of a person headed to trial. It includes basic background information on the individual, such as their age, education, relationships, physical and mental health, employment, military service, social history, and substance abuse history. It also contains a detailed account of their current offense, witness or victim impact statements of the event, and prior offenses, which are tracked across numerous agencies. Finally, the PSI also has a section that is devoted to a plan or recommendations for supervision, created by the PO. This section may suggest the appropriate conditions of probation, if probation is to be granted. Judges use this information during sentencing discussions and hearings, and will usually follow the PSI’s recommendations (around 85% of the time). In this way, many of conditions of probation are prescribed by POs.

Important factors that inform whether an individual is sentenced to probation are contained within the PSI. If the offender is largely a “prosocial” person – has an education, a job, and a family – they would be considered as having significant ties to the community. These ties to the community could weaken or break if a person was incarcerated. Thus, providing a sanction that allows the offender to stay in the community is often the preferred approach, depending on the nature of the offense.

Individuals on Probation

As stated, there are several million people on probation, serving various lengths of probation, and under numerous conditions or condition types. Additionally, the convictions which place individuals on probation vary, to include misdemeanors and felonies. Probationers serve their probation at the state level, and there is even federal probation. As depicted below, it is easy to see how much probation is used in the United States.

Probation Success

There is mixed evidence concerning the effectiveness of probation. Recently, the Bureau of Justice Statistics listed the successful completion rate in 2020 at 43.4% – the lowest rate of successful completion since 2007. [1] There are a host of reasons associated with unsuccessful completion, including incarcerated on a new sentence/charge, incarceration for the current sentence/charge, absconding (fleeing jurisdiction), discharge to a warrant or detainer, or even death. Probation represents a form of “tourniquet sentencing,” a model where the intensity of a sanction may be increased to force compliance. In this way, an individual on probation who is not adhering to their conditions may face a revocation hearing. This bench hearing may lead to an informal admonishment by a judge, an increase in the probationer restrictions or probation length, an increased level of control (moving from regular probation to intensive supervised probation), or even placement in a secure facility (jail, prison, or community corrections center), all depending on the particular infraction. Many individuals move from regular probation to ISP, in an effort to force compliance through increased monitoring.

Intensive Supervised Probation

Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP) began in the late 1950s in California. The basic premise of ISP is to allow POs to have smaller caseloads that they monitor more closely. ISP and standard probation models are similar, differing primarily by the frequency of contacts with POs, the increases in surveillance and monitoring, and usually the volume of conditions. Rather than meeting a PO once a month, a person on ISP would likely be meeting with their PO weekly, or even more frequently. Additionally, individuals on ISP normally submit to drug screens weekly. The increased conditions of supervision often include more substance abuse treatment, either in the form of AA, NA, or some other residential or outpatient substance use treatment program.

The popularity of ISP with policymakers and correctional authorities is evidenced by its rapid spread throughout the United States; yet some researchers have questioned its effectiveness. One of the largest studies of ISPs examined their effectiveness in reducing recidivism and saving costs. In a random sample of 14 cities, across 9 States, researchers evaluated the recidivism rates of ISP vs. “regular” probationers. Surprisingly, the study found higher rates of technical violations among individuals in ISP, while there were no significant differences in new arrests by probation type. Moreover, when looking at outcomes over 3 years, researchers found that recidivism rates were slightly higher within ISP (39%) compared to regular probation (33%). Neither model offered substantive cost savings. [2] Other studies have produced similar findings as to the effects of non-treatment oriented ISPs. On the one hand, these results may reflect the greater “criminogenic needs” of individuals placed on ISP; indeed, this model is reserved for individuals who are believed to be at greater risk of recidivism. On the other hand, such findings critique the very premise of ISP – it should not be surprising that, the more you watch someone, the more you will find error.

  1. Kaeble, D. (2021). Probation and Parole in the United States, 2020. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2021, NCJ 303102
  2. Petersilia, J. R., & Deschenes, E. (2004). Evaluating intensive supervision probation/parole (ISP) for drug offenders. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/reprints/RP168.html


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Introduction to the U.S. Criminal Justice System Copyright © 2019 by David Carter and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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