The responsibilities of probation officers are many, and most of those day-to-day responsibilities occur prior to the sentencing of a convicted offender. Those pre-sentencing responsibilities include providing reports to the judge on the offender’s background, including pertinent information on the offender’s upbringing and current family situation, as well as obvious information like prior arrests and convictions. The probation officer also is responsible for making recommendations to the judge on what he or she believes are viable options for the offender in addition to prison time, including the option of supervised probation, community service, educational options, etc. Once a convicted offender is sentenced to probation, however, the probation officer’s responsibilities include preparation of a plan for the offender’s life during the period of probation, including any employment or educational options, supervision of the offender, enforcement of any special provisions set forth by the sentencing judge, assessing particular needs of the offender, and serves as a point of contact within the criminal justice system for families of offenders experiencing difficulties or requiring information. Finally, the probation officer is responsible for setting up counseling sessions and any interactions between the offender and social service agencies that the officer deems warranted.
It is the last of these responsibilities that provide the probation officer the greatest opportunity to positively influence the direction an offender on probation takes. Probation officers – particularly those not over-burdened with caseloads that exceed their capacity for thorough execution – are positioned to make positive contributions to the development of offenders in their charge. Through careful counseling of the offenders for whom they are responsible, probation officers can most definitely influence the offender’s progression. Offenders, those who sincerely hope to avoid future interaction with the criminal justice system, presented with viable academic and professional options, combined with counseling sessions intended to address underlying causes of deviant or criminal behavior, have a reasonable chance of turning their lives around. It is the probation officer’s responsibility to ensure that those in their charge are aware of those opportunities – and, in most instances, they are not actually options, but rather are requirements of supervised release – and that the offender adheres to whatever plan is established. Admittedly, in cases involving drug or alcohol addictions, ensuring continued compliance with treatment and counseling programs is always a challenge, and, in the case of drugs, require invasive procedures to verify compliance, but that is the agreement into which offenders enter in exchange for not having to spend time in prison.
The difficulties of executing a successful probationary program are evident in the recidivism rates most states experience. Probation officers, however, can, and sometimes do, make a positive difference in the direction of the lives for which they are responsible.