Probation Officer: Career Guide

Written By CriminalJusticeDegreeSchools.com Staff


Probation officers hold the unique duty of maintaining public safety while also providing support and rehabilitation to law offenders. They work within the legal system, managing probationers as they serve a portion of their sentence in the community. The field is an attractive option for those who wish to impact their communities and other people's lives.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the profession also offers enticing salary potential, with the average probation officer earning a median annual salary of $54,290 and the highest 10% of probation officers earning nearly $95,000 annually. Most probation officers work for the government managing criminal cases, but they may find positions in social services facilities, as well.

Education, experience, and performance can also influence professionals' career paths. Most employers require a bachelor's degree at minimum, but graduate degrees, specialized training, and professional experience can also open doors. Read on to learn about this rewarding career, its requirements, and potential benefits for professionals in the field.

What Does a Probation Officer Do?

Probation officers assist in the rehabilitation of people in custody, on probation, or on parole. They evaluate the needs of the law offenders in their care and create treatment plans to help them progress and prepare for life after probation. These professionals offer a variety of social services, such as educational resources, career training, and support for those struggling with substance abuse.

Probation officers play an integral role in the justice system, working closely with the courts, law enforcement, and social service agencies to provide support for offenders, uphold the law, and protect the community. They may interact with probationers' families and friends to develop a support system and determine rehabilitation progress.

These officers may issue drug tests on probationers, conduct interviews, and undertake prehearing investigations. They also compile and submit their findings in detailed reports for the courts, which helps determine the appropriate course of action for offenders in the officer's care.

Depending on their work environments, many probation officers experience high-stress situations. Probationers may resist or demonstrate hostility to the process. Officers may work either with juveniles or adults, and with experience and advanced training, they may specialize in a field such as substance abuse or domestic violence cases.

Key Skills for Probation Officers

Every probation officer brings a unique set of skills to their role, but certain characteristics prove especially important. The following skills ensure that probation officers thrive professionally while handling their career's essential duties.

  • Critical Thinking

    Critical thinking allows probation officers to develop treatment plans that cater to a probationer's specific needs. The skill also enables probation officers to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment and determine the next course of action.

  • Communication

    Communication skills give probation officers the tools to speak clearly and in a manner that people can understand. This also allows them to listen to and comprehend others effectively. Finally, communication skills help probation officers write clear, concise reports.

  • Social Perceptiveness

    Since probation officers deal with people, social perceptiveness helps them connect with and understand those they work with. With these skills, officers can pick up on subtleties in speech, actions, and body language during interviews and discussions, which can help them make more accurate evaluations and assessments.

  • Decision-Making

    Probation officers need decision-making skills to choose the appropriate course of action for probationers based on their needs and court orders. This skill also helps professionals provide the courts with determinations and recommendations for probationers based on their response to treatment and rehabilitation.

  • Organization

    Because probation officers usually work with multiple probationers at a time, they must manage several cases and rehabilitation plans at once. Organizational skills help them stay on track and handle their tasks in an orderly, prioritized fashion.

Probation Officer Daily Tasks

While probation officers' tasks depend on their department, location, and specialization, many officers complete similar daily duties. The following list details some of the field's most common assignments.

  • Speak with probationers to assess their rehabilitation progress and establish next steps and goals.
  • Evaluate and report on treatment stages and individual tasks.
  • Conduct drug and alcohol tests on probationers if required.
  • Provide access to resources for job training, employment, and education.
  • Investigate each probationer's history and actions.
  • Complete, maintain, and submit probationer reports and case files for courts and law enforcement.

Probation Officer Salary and Career Outlook

Probation officers provide an essential service to communities, ensuring these jobs will stay in demand for the foreseeable future. BLS data projects slower-than-average job growth for probation officers from 2018-2028, but these professionals and social service specialists still enjoy a variety of opportunities.

As state and local governments transition to community corrections over incarceration, the field should experience growth. Furthermore, stress- and workload-related turnover continues to create new jobs for hopeful candidates.

As with most professions, applicants with more advanced training enjoy better employment prospects. For example, master's degree graduates typically receive more opportunities in the field than bachelor's graduates. Other educational elements can help, as well, such as speaking Spanish or completing counseling training. In addition to promising job availability and diversity, this field offers attractive wages, as discussed in more detail below.

Salary Expectations for Probation Officers

According to BLS data, though candidates' earning potential depends on several factors, probation officers earn a median annual wage exceeding $54,000 -- approximately $15,000 more than the average for all occupations. Often reserved for professionals with advanced degrees and experience, the top 10% of earners make nearly $95,000 per year.

Industry and location can also influence probation officer wages. According to data from the BLS, most of these professionals work for state and local governments, earning annual mean wages of approximately $59,000 and $62,000, respectively. In California, the state which offers the nation's highest pay, professionals earn a mean annual wage of over $91,000. On the east coast, New York and New Jersey lead the way, offering mean annual wages of over $71,000.

How to Become a Probation Officer

Most probation officers graduate high school or complete a GED before earning a bachelor's degree focused on criminal justice or behavioral sciences. More relevant undergraduate training increases candidates' chances at employment. After completing their bachelor's, applicants often undergo probation officer training, which typically takes 4-8 weeks.

Steps to Becoming a Probation Officer

  • Earn a high school diploma or GED.
  • Earn a degree in social work, criminal justice, or a related field.
  • Obtain work experience through internships or volunteer hours.
  • Complete a state or federal government training program.
  • Pass a certification test.
  • Apply and interview for an open position.
  • Pass a background and criminal check.
  • Complete on-the-job training once hired.

Probation Officer Requirements

The requirements for becoming a probation officer vary by state, community, desired industry, and employer. However, candidates generally need a combination of education, industry certification, and experience. The following information covers typical job requirements in more detail.

Education Requirements for Probation Officers

Probation officers can hold bachelor's degrees in a variety of subjects, according to the BLS. Professionals may come from an array of behavioral science backgrounds, but a criminal justice degree is the most direct career path. Students who wish to pursue specific fields within the profession, such as substance abuse or juvenile corrections, may benefit from concentrations or focused training in those areas.

Some states and industries may require additional training, such as an academy training program. For professionals looking to advance their career into a supervisory role, master's degrees in criminal justice can help. In addition to improving employment opportunities, advanced specialized training may also lead to wage increases.

License and Certification Requirements for Probation Officers

In some states, probation officers must pass certification exams to qualify for employment. Additionally, working in certain probation specializations, such as juvenile probation, may require certification. These qualifications allow governments and authorities to ensure that all candidates meet minimum standards for the profession.

Other possible certifications may include officer safety training certifications, which cover defensive tactics and firearms training, and academy program certifications, which demonstrate completion of the state-sponsored programs. Check local state requirements for more details.

Required Experience for Probation Officers

Experience can help aspiring probation officers find their professional interests and land employment, but specific experience requirements vary by state and field. In most cases, employers prefer experience but do not require it. Prior to employment, these candidates may gain relevant experience through internships or volunteer work.

Some states, however, require candidates to possess general work experience before entering the field, which helps ensure their maturity and discipline for the role. Additionally, working probation officers may use professional experience to advance or further specialize their careers. For example, supervisors and managers typically need several years of experience or graduate degrees to qualify. Some states require juvenile probationers to complete at least one year of related experience to qualify for employment.

Where Can I Work as a Probation Officer?

Each state employs probation officers in a variety of industries and sectors. Their skills, interests, and experience levels may lead them into different areas of the profession. Depending on their specific field and where they live, aspiring officers should expect considerably different employment conditions, wages, and employment opportunities. The information listed below examines those influencing factors and some resulting salaries.

Locations

Location plays an important role in determining job availability and wages for many careers. In the probation officer field, the more populated, high-crime locations tend to offer more employment opportunities. Similarly, densely populated cities usually offer more opportunities than rural areas.

In terms of salary expectations, cities with higher costs of living typically average higher salaries. The table below outlines the wages in the country's five highest-paying states.

Annual Mean Wage by State for Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, 2019
Top-Paying States Annual Mean Wage
California $91,760
New Jersey $71,420
New York $71,280
Iowa $69,570
Massachusetts $68,460
Source: BLS

Settings

Professional settings and employers impact salary potential, as well. Probation officers typically work in government positions, but they may also pursue outside opportunities, which may pay more or less than traditional positions. Even within government, state-level positions tend to pay less than local government positions.

Competition, availability, and responsibilities also impact wages. Outside of government, probation officers can find work in social support facilities, such as individual and family services and substance abuse facilities. The following table examines the most popular work environments and their typical salaries.

Median Salaries by Setting for Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, 2019
Setting Median Annual Salary
Local Government $57,920
State Government $52,500
Social Assistance $35,730
Source: BLS

Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a probation officer?
It takes approximately four years to complete the required bachelor's degree, plus an additional 4-8 weeks of field training.
What degree is needed to be a probation officer?
Probation officers may pursue a variety of degrees to qualify for a position, but criminal justice and social work degrees provide the most relevant training.
How much does a probation officer make?
Several factors influence salary expectations, including location, experience, education, and industry. The median annual wage in the field is $54,290, according to the BLS.
What requirements are there to become a probation officer?
Probation officers typically need a bachelor's degree in a relevant field, plus some practical training. They may acquire this training through internships, academy training programs, or on-the-job training.
What is the difference between a probation officer and a parole officer?
Some people may use the terms probation officer and parole officer interchangeably, but the professions are different. Probation officers work with individuals who have been convicted of crimes but were given probation in lieu of prison or who received deferred sentences. Parole officers work with individuals who served time in prison and were released under supervision. These officers help them readjust to living in the community.
What is a common work schedule for probation officers?
Officers generally work full time. Prospective probation officers should prepare to work long hours, including nights and weekends, and be on call when necessary.
What type of hiring protocol can be expected for a parole officer?
While all institutions implement their own hiring processes, many require candidates to pass exams, including oral, physical, psychological, and written tests.
Can probation officers specialize?
Yes. Some probation officers opt to work with certain offenders, such as those with substance abuse problems or who have been convicted of domestic violence. Specialization generally requires additional training.

Professional Resources for Probation Officers

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