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Careers in Criminal Justice: Corrections - Careers In Probation And Parole

officers community training offenders

The nature of the work. Probation and parole officers share common goals. They supervise, support, and provide needed services to offenders so that they can return to free society as law-abiding and productive citizens. Whether an offender is on probation or on parole is determined by his or her legal status. An offender, under a probationary sentence, will be under the supervision of a probation officer. If the court imposes a "split-sentence," the offender serves a short time in a correctional institution, usually in a house of correction. Thereafter, he or she is supervised by a probation officer for the remainder of the sentence. Offenders serving time in prisons or jails are often placed on parole upon their release. Both probationers and parolees are given a conditional release under the supervision of a probation or parole officer for specific length of time.

Probation and parole straddle the worlds of police, courts, corrections, and social work. Probation agents are officers of the court and fulfill a multiplicity of interrelated functions. At the police level, they provide information for the possible diversion of an offender from criminal justice to alternatives, such as community assistance programs. Parole officers usually work for the executive (federal, state, and local) branches of government. They notify local police and victims when certain individuals (for example, sex offenders) are released from prison. Release notifications are determined by law and vary considerably by jurisdiction. Both probation and parole officers assist police in the location and apprehension of probation absconders or parole violators.

At the court level, probation officers conduct presentence investigations. They prepare reports on the offenders for prosecutorial and judicial decisions, such as bail or other pretrial release. They supervise offenders placed by the courts on pretrial release. Probation officers routinely make sentence recommendations, including the use of special conditions to be placed on individual offenders. Once offenders are placed on probation, the officers supervise and monitor their activities. They prepare reports for the courts, which reflect an offender's relative progress. As warranted, the reports may recommend probation revocation in case of serious rule violations or the commission of new crimes. They may modify the conditions of probation as needed, or they may recommend an early discharge for good behavior. Parole officers, in turn, make recommendations on sentence length through parole decisions. They provide liaison between the police, the courts, and the executive branches of government. They also coordinate the supervision process for offenders with split sentences. While the decision to parole is usually made by parole boards, it is the parole officer who prepares the cases for hearings, formulates the recommendations for action, and supervises the offender in the community. This activity includes enforcing the conditions of an offender's release, including substance abuse monitoring. Officers assist offenders in finding and retaining work and housing. They also provide the necessary linkages to community services, such as medical or mental health treatment, vocational training, and drug treatment.

Through their sentencing recommendations, probation officers exert a major impact on institutional corrections, since they help determine who will go to prison or jail, and for how long. They serve as a liaison between the courts and the various corrections agencies. Probation officers also administer the community release phase of an offender's split sentence. Parole officers, in turn, coordinate the release of inmates from institutions. This involves the preparation of offenders' dossiers for the release hearing, as well as the procurement of housing, work, and community assistance as needed. The supervision of parolees has long been recognized as a vital component of an offender's reintegration into the community. Unfortunately, recent criminal justice reforms have abolished parole in many jurisdictions. Although some corrections systems have replaced parole with another form of community supervision, any reduction in post-release supervision is detrimental to community safety and crime reduction.

Probation and parole work emphasizes casework, reflecting the influence of social work on the professions. This focus first emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, when officers were expected to form therapeutic relationships with their "clients." In the process, the development of social work skills was emphasized, and work consisted of probing interviews, counseling, providing insight, and modifying offender behavior. With the demise of the "medical model" during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the focus changed from diagnosis and treatment to a much broader perspective of probation and parole work. Today's probation and parole officers fulfill a multiplicity of functions. They are agents of law enforcement, responsible for the supervision of the offenders assigned to their care, and, indirectly, for the safety of their communities. They are also social workers in the broadest sense of the word. As such, they work with individuals, groups, and communities. They recognize that factors such as poverty, lack of education, unemployment, underemployment, marginality, inadequate housing, and ill health are connected to crime and can affect an offender's rehabilitation.

Since it is the responsibility of probation and parole officers to enforce court orders, they must, as the occasion arises, arrest those they supervise, conduct physical searches, seize evidence, and decide whether to revoke probation or parole or whether to file charges for new court proceedings. One of the latest trends in community corrections is the development and growth of collaborative projects between police, probation, parole, and other social service agencies. For example, Operation Night Light in Boston is a highly acclaimed juvenile crime reduction program in which probation officers and police not only share information, but also engage in joint patrols and curfew checks. The program has succeeded in reducing gang violence, homicides, and violence committed with firearms. It is currently being duplicated in other cities and states.

Pay. In 1999, the average starting salary for probation officers was $27,197. With time in grade, the average salary rises to $36,622, with the highest salaries ranging from a low of $36,275 in South Dakota to a high of $93,411 in the federal system (Camp and Camp). That same year, the average starting salary for parole officers was $28,491. With time in grade, the average salary rises to $37,319, with the highest salaries ranging from a low of $30,036 in West Virginia to a high of $64,212 in California.

Qualifications and education. A bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) is generally the minimum requirement for employment as a social worker. In corrections, majors in criminal justice, education, psychology, sociology, police science, and related fields are also acceptable for entry-level work. Federal positions require one year of graduate-level courses in addition to the degree. By contrast, some agencies accept experience plus passing a university equivalency test as substitute for formal education requirements. However, there is a trend toward increasing educational requirements in the professions. Similar to the corrections track, candidates must be citizens of the United States, have no felony convictions, and must pass a battery of job-related general physical abilities tests, psychological and physical examinations, as well as drug tests. In some jurisdictions, probation and parole officers must also be willing to complete training necessary for certification as peace officers.

Probation and parole officers must have excellent communication and human interaction skills. Agents must also have good oral and writing skills, analytical aptitude, and be willing and able to work under stressful conditions.

In-service training. A majority of agencies require the completion of an intensive basic training course within the first year of employment. California, for example, requires a 200-hour basic training course and certification by the California State Board of Corrections. Similar training is provided to parole agents, who also must complete several weeks of academy training. In many jurisdictions, probation and parole officers are also expected to complete one year of supervised casework.

Job outlook. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the employment of probation, parole, or community supervision officers is expected to rise faster than the average for all occupations during the first decade of the twenty-first century. At year-end 1998, the number of adult men and women in the United States being supervised in the community exceeded four million, reflecting a growth rate of about 3.1 percent per annum (Bureau of Justice Statistics). The number of federal, state, and local probation officers will continue to rise due to a number of factors. First, prison overcrowding in many jurisdictions has led many judges to sentence larger numbers of offenders to probation, including higher risk cases. Second, widespread adoption and expansion of intermediate sanctions, such as electronic monitoring, day reporting, education and work furloughs, and community service, is increasing demand for supervisory agents and workers in each of these areas.

Looking at parole, each year approximately 600,000 federal and state inmates are released to the community. Many more parolees are released from local houses of correction. Because prisons and jails, at all levels of government, have retained few treatment programs in this era of resource cutbacks and lost faith in rehabilitation, the prisoner reentry population has greater needs than ever before. Therefore, the need for parole and related supervisory agents is expected to rise, as will their caseload. Meeting the myriad of needs of this population, such as finding and keeping a job, increasing their skills and education, improving their family ties, and dealing with their persistent and destructive substance abuse problems, will be critical if a new crime wave is to be prevented.

Career development. Most probation and parole officers begin their career as trainees and receive on-the-job-training for six to twelve months. With experience, further education, and in-service and new skills training, qualified officers can advance to higher grades. Depending on qualifications and ambition, officers can also advance to supervisory positions and, with time, to administrative posts. Most agencies encourage their employees to advance their education and to attend professional-training events to keep at the cutting edge of their work. Of note here are the activities of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), an international association composed of individuals from the United States and Canada actively involved with adult and juvenile probation, parole, and community-based corrections. The APPA provides national training workshops, symposia, and training institutes on a regular basis.

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