Pros and Cons of a Probation Officer Career
A probation officer is responsible for monitoring the activities of individuals sentenced to probation instead of prison. Use these pros and cons to help you decide if being a probation officer is right for you.
|Pros of a Career as a Probation Officer|
|Decent pay ($53,360 average as of May 2014)|
|Option to work in or out of an office environment (a probationer's home, place of employment or the officer's office)*|
|Variety of duties*|
|Opportunity to help offenders follow the law*|
|Cons of a Career as a Probation Officer|
|Possible risk included in home visits to probationers*|
|Time consuming reports often required for use in court proceedings*|
|Work hours can be irregular (probation officers can be called 24 hours a day if their clients are arrested or get in trouble)*|
|Low earning potential in some industries and geographical areas*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Job Description and Duties
As a probation officer, you monitor individuals who have been placed on probation by a court. Probation officers typically meet with offenders at their place of employment or at home. A probation officer is also responsible for writing various reports that chart the behavior and progress of an individual. The officer then submits these reports to the appropriate court.
There is an important difference between offenders who are on parole and those who are on probation. Individuals that are on parole have just been released from prison, and offenders that are on probation have avoided a prison sentence but are required to check in with their officer at specific times to ensure that they have not violated the terms of their probation. In some states, the responsibilities of probation officers and parole officers are united under one job title.
In May 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported there were nearly 87,000 individuals working as probation officers and correctional treatment specialists, and most of those earned annual salaries between $32,810 and $83,920. Probation officers working in a system run by state government reported mean earnings of close to $53,010, while those working for individual and family services reported mean earnings of $32,950. Location also has an effect on salary. For example, probation officers in New Mexico reported mean annual earnings of approximately $36,680, while individuals doing the same job in California reported mean earnings of over $78,000 annually. The BLS reported a prediction of a growth rate of only 4%, or no significant change, for 2014-2024.
What Are the Requirements?
Education and Training Requirements
To work as a probation officer, you'll need a bachelor's degree in psychology, criminal justice or a related field. Completing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology provides an aspiring probation officer with the tools to understand what might motivate a client to do the things they do. In a psychology program, you'll take classes in personality and developmental stages; you'll choose from electives like social or abnormal psychology and look at how culture shapes an individual's personality. You may be required to complete an internship as well.
In an undergraduate criminal justice program, you'll take classes that include an overview of the national criminal justice system, drug education and strategies to control crimes. Another common course covers discussions of ethics in criminal justice. You'll be required to complete an internship with an approved agency.
What Are Employers Looking for?
Employers tend to look for probation officer with previous work experience in the probation field or other areas of law enforcement. Employers also seem to prefer advanced education, though only a bachelor's degree is usually required.
- In California, a county seeks a probation officer with a bachelor's degree in sociology, psychology or criminal justice and a driver's license to oversee individuals assigned to probation. Experience in law enforcement or probation is suggested.
- In Arizona, an individual under the age of 38 with a bachelor's or master's degree in criminal justice, criminology, psychology, sociology, human relations, or business or public administration is sought to supervise offenders in the court system. This probation officer will also conduct investigations and recommend sentences to the court.
- In Hawaii, the government is hiring a federal probation officer with a bachelor's degree and a minimum of two years experience in probation, pretrial services or counseling. An advanced degree is preferred, and travel around the state is required.
How to Stand Out in the Crowd
With the field expected to grow 19% between 2008 and 2018, probation officer applicants might be looking for ways to distinguish themselves from other candidates. One way to do that is to earn a graduate degree in criminal justice, as some employers do prefer to have applicants with master's degrees. These programs are available in the traditional in-class method or online, to offer flexibility. In either format, you'll take classes about corrections theory and policy analysis related to criminal justice; you'll also study criminal justice law and legislation that may affect the field of criminal justice. These programs require 36-45 credit hours and can be completed in two years.
Many employers prefer to hire individuals with experience in pretrial services, parole or addiction treatment when filling probation officer positions. You might wish to gain employment in one of these areas before seeking a position as a probation officer.
Alternative Career Paths
If public safety is the field you're sure you want to enter, but you'd prefer to have a more active role in law enforcement that includes gathering evidence in crimes and patrolling your community to keep others safe, you might consider a career as a police officer. Many jurisdictions require at least a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or administration of justice. These 4-year degree programs include courses like community policing, theories of crime and research techniques for criminal justice professionals. Police officers are required to attend a police training academy and often work with a senior officer for a period of time before they go out on their own. The BLS reported that in May 2011, there were over 636,000 police officers working in the United States with a median annual salary of over $54,000; between 2008 and 2018, the field is expected to grow by nine percent.
If you are more interested in working with offenders before they are released, you might want to consider working as a corrections officer. These law enforcement personnel supervise offenders in detention facilities, which includes maintaining order by enforcing regulations and preventing disturbances within the prison system. The BLS states that only a high school diploma is required to become a corrections officer, unless you work in the federal prison system, which requires a bachelor's degree or at least three years of work experience. Required training, some of which is offered at local law enforcement academies, also covers the use of firearms, custody procedures and self-defense skills. The BLS reported nearly 449,000 corrections offers and jailers working in the U.S. in May 2011, earning a median annual salary of nearly $39,000. Job opportunities were expected to grow nine percent between 2008 and 2018.