What Does a Probation Officer Do?
Probation officers ensure that adult or juvenile offenders meet conditions stipulated by the courts in lieu of incarceration. Additionally, criminals who are released from jail are often put on probation to facilitate a seamless transition back to civilian life. Probation officers regularly check in with people who are on probation in order to conduct interviews, provide employment assistance, and locate rehabilitative services.
Probation officers work for state and local governments. They're usually employed on a full-time basis, and long, irregular hours are common. Probation officers work with a range of parolees, some of whom may be dangerous. As such, the job carries a measure of risk, especially during those times when a probation officer must track a parolee who has fled and bring him or her back to the system.
Hiring requirements for probation officers vary by agency and state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2019, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists earned a median annual salary of $54,290. A 4%, or fast-as-average increase in employment, is expected between 2019 and 2029, as reported by the BLS.
What Are the Requirements to Become a Probation Officer?
Have you ever wondered how to become a probation officer? The requirements to qualify for a position generally consist of four different categories:
- General requirements
- Education requirements
- Job-specific requirements
- Certification and training requirements
Let's explore each of these categories one by one.
General Requirements for Probation Officers
While the prerequisites for being a probation officer can vary by state, according to the BLS, most state probation agencies stipulate the following in order for a person to be considered for a job as a probation officer:
- You must be 21 years of age or older.
- You must have a valid driver's license.
- You must pass a competency exam.
- You must pass a criminal background check
- You must pass a drug test.
- You must pass physical and mental health exams.
Ideally, probation officers should also have good communication, critical-thinking, and decision-making skills. They should also be emotionally stable and well-organized.
Probation Officer Education Requirements
Probation officer schooling consists of a completing a college degree program after earning a high school diploma or its equivalent. Typically, probation officers need a bachelor's or master's degree in behavioral science, criminal justice, social work, or another field related to criminal or social justice. Officers usually need a graduate degree, such as a master's degree, to advance in the field. Aspiring probation officers may apply to criminal justice programs with concentrations in corrections. Topics of study often include criminal law, psychology, social problems, and violence.
Some colleges and universities recommend completion of an internship prior to graduation, which may or may not count toward your degree requirements. An internship is an excellent way for probation officers to get their foot in the door and better understand the demands of the job.
Probation Officer Job Requirements
If you accept a job as a probation officer, you'll need to be able to perform the requirements of the job. First, you'll need to communicate effectively with clients, checking in with them to ensure that they're following the conditions of their probation and connecting them with available resources. You'll also need to use analytical and critical-thinking skills when interviewing a client. Additionally, you'll need to make decisions efficiently and effectively under pressure, as you may be responsible for bringing people who have violated the terms of their probation into custody. The job will present many potentially stressful and emotionally taxing situations, so it's important to understand these factors before accepting a job as a probation officer.
Probation Officer Qualifications
In order to qualify for a job as a probation officer, many states have licensing exams that you must take. Although the requirements to be a probation officer vary by state, these requirements generally include:
- Officer safety training - This covers the basic safety information necessary to work as a police or probation officer. It can include the safe use of firearms.
- Academy program certifications - These are the specific programs that your state requires from the police academy before you become a probation officer.
- Subspecialty certifications - Additional qualifications will be necessary if you want to specialize in a particular area of probation, such as juvenile.
These certification and training requirements may need to be met before applying for a job. Or, they may be provided by your police department before you begin working as a probation officer.
Experience Necessary for Probation Officers
Some employers may require potential probation officers to have prior work experience in a related field such as counseling, criminal investigations, or substance abuse treatment. Candidates for employment may also need previous work experience in corrections, parole, or pretrial services. While this background work may not always be required, it can help aspiring probation officers learn communication and critical-thinking skills.
Skills Required to Become a Probation Officer
Probation officers must possess a variety of important skills in order for them to work effectively with others and perform the duties of their job. Some of the skills required include:
- Critical thinking - You'll need to analyze and assess information presented to you to determine whether it's legitimate—or not.
- Decision-making - Often, you'll have to make decisions about whether people are adhering to their probation conditions and how best to respond if they're not in compliance.
- Effective communication - It takes good communication to interact with, and provide resources to, individuals on probation.
- Organization - You may work with numerous people at a time as a probation officer; this requires organization to manage the various cases you're working on.
Training Programs for Probation Officers
Most newly hired probation officers must complete a state-mandated training program after meeting the other job requirements. Training may begin with classroom instruction in state codes and court probation procedures. Depending on the state, training may include additional weeks of basic officer and firearms training. Additionally, new probation officers may have to pass a certification test. They may also have to complete a one-year trainee period before obtaining a permanent position. Working probation officers may also be required to participate in continuing education.
Probation Officer Professional Organizations
Aspiring probation officers may consider joining a professional membership organization, such as the American Parole and Probation Association (APPA), which offers a variety of benefits, including additional training, career development programs, and networking opportunities, as well as other resources for professional growth and advancement in probation, parole, and community corrections.
Probation Officer Salary Expectations
If you're still interested in becoming a probation officer, you'll need a bachelor or master's degree in behavioral science, criminal justice, or social work. Once employed, you can expect to earn a median annual salary of $54,290, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019. Additionally, the BLS projects that jobs for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists will grow by 4% in the decade between 2019 and 2029, which is as fast as average for jobs in the United States of America.
Notably, the pay for probation officers will vary across geographical locations. In areas where the cost of living expenses is higher, probation officers will generally be paid higher to compensate them. The top five highest-paying states for probation officers in May 2019 can be found in the table below:
|State||Annual Mean Salary|
Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
Of course, the salary for probation officers will vary within states as well, so check with your local police department when you apply for a job to find out their specific salary information.
Frequently Asked Questions
- How long does it take to become a probation officer? The length of time it takes to become a probation officer will vary based on the individual course of schooling and experience. Generally, it takes four years to earn a high school diploma, an additional 4-6 years for a bachelor's and/or master's degree, and then several more years of professional experience in order to qualify for a job as a probation officer.
- What are the requirements to become a probation officer? In order to become a probation officer, you generally need to be a U.S. citizen, have a valid driver's license, pass a background check and a drug test, and pass a qualification exam. You also need to have a college degree, usually in criminal justice or a related field. It may also be necessary to work in a related field to gain on-the-job experience.
- What are the qualifications to be a probation officer? The qualifications for probation officers vary between states, but they usually include completion of certifications in officer safety training, as well as academy program certifications and other qualifications specific to the type of probation officer that you want to be.
- What is the difference between a police officer and a probation officer? Police officers and probation officers both work in law enforcement and criminal justice. However, police officers are generally involved in responding to emergencies and apprehending criminals, whereas probation officers work with people who are on probation to ensure that they follow the conditions of their probation and to provide other resources for them.