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The history and spread of probation in America

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1687 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The term probation comes from the Latin verb probare, meaning to prove or to test. Throughout history probation has been used in various forms. From its earliest American origins probation has broadened and expanded immensely in its function within the criminal justice system. The terms and conditions of probation continue to evolve, as well as the various consequences imposed if said conditions are not closely adhered to. Probation is a privilege granted to particular law violators in lieu of imprisonment. Just as the root word derived from, probation is a test issued to an offender, offering them a chance to prove themselves.


Elements of probation can be seen throughout history. There is reference in Mosaic Law to the right of sanctuary. Right of sanctuary offered cities of refuge to killers seeking to escape retribution. While probation as we know it today is not an escape from punishment, it can be seen as a sort of sanctuary in that probationers are offered the opportunity to atone for their crimes and maintain in the free society. The suspended sentence, commonly used in the Middle Ages in England, mirrors probation in that it can be revoked and a prison sentence imposed if the offender fails to stay out of trouble for the amount of time specified. Suspended sentence at this time, however, did not include any kind of supervision, nor were there any set goals of reform. There was also a form of temporary release used by the courts during this time. “Binding over for good behavior” offered offenders an opportunity to secure pardons or lesser sentences.

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Matthew Davenport Hill was a English barrister and judge in Eighteenth Century England. As Recorder of Birmingham, a judicial post, he instituted a practice for individuals who did not appear to be hopeless cases. In witnessing the sentencing of youthful offenders to the custody of their parents for supervision, Hill decided that those offenders who showed hope of rehabilitation could also be placed in the hands of willing guardians. As part of this arrangement these willing guardians would receive periodic visits from local police to stay current on the progress of the released offender.


John Augustus, credited as the “Father of Probation”, embarked upon a journey that would revolutionize the field of corrections in America. His efforts began when he persuaded a local court in Massachusetts to release into his custody an adult drunk, instead of imprisoning him. This challenge was met with great success. A shoe cobbler in Boston, Augustus supervised the man, paid his fines, and helped him achieve sobriety. His efforts broadened to and he began taking responsibility for juveniles. Again his efforts were fruitful and the court was pleased with his results. Reform became a true possibility.

Over the course of his eighteen years as a volunteer probation officer [1841-1858], Augustus bailed 1,946 men, women and children. A mere ten of this number forfeited their bond. The first probation statute was passed in 1878 shortly after his death. Augustus’ work was “a remarkable accomplishment when measured against any standard.” (“New York City Department of Probation”)


“By 1900, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, and Illinois passed probation laws; by 1910, 32 more states had passed legislation establishing juvenile probation; and by 1930 juvenile probation was legislated in every state except Wyoming.” (“Office of Probation and Correctional Alternatives”) Every state in the country offers probation to both adults and juveniles today. While the structure may vary from state to state the possibility for reform remains a strong and solid objective. Probation not only offers the offender incentive to change it saves the public enormous funds as the cost is minimal when compared to the increasing costs of incarceration. Probation also serves to abate the current concerns of overcrowding in prisons.


Probation has many practical functions in the field of corrections. As mentioned above, probation is privilege not a right. One of the many aims of probation is protecting the public. Probation is generally issued to low risk, non-violent offenders. Often these offenders are open to the idea of treatment and rehabilitation in an effort to avoid becoming professional offenders. Until recently, probation was predominantly used for first offense misdemeanants, however, with the implementation of get tough laws and the war on drugs saw the court system becoming more and more bogged down with cases and the prison system became increasingly prone to overcrowding.

Depending on the sentencing guidelines for the crime committed, the accused may offer to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Probation is a valuable tool for the offender, the district attorney, and the court system. If the criteria of a case make the offender eligible for probation a presentence investigation report is ordered to determine if probation could be a valid and effective punishment. The presentence investigation report includes the offenders background and their disposition to their charges as well as other useful information.


If probation is granted, several conditions may be imposed. These conditions will be specifically designed to the individual based on their criminal record and the nature of the crime they have pled guilty to. There are various levels of probation. The lowest level of probation is unsupervised. This is when the offender is placed on probation and perhaps ordered to pay fines and court costs but is not obligated to a regular interaction with a probation officer. They are generally ordered to call in on arranged dates and update the probation officer as to their progress as well as maintain gainful employment in the community.

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Supervised Probation requires the offender to report to their local probation office on an established number of days per week or month, depending on the level of supervision. Often supervised probation will contain conditions such as: reporting regularly, failing to engage in any further criminal activity, submitting to searches, abstaining from using drugs, abstaining from owning a firearm, limiting alcohol intake, abstaining from associating with known criminals and notifying their supervising officer of any major changes such as relocation or job change. (Allen, Latessa, and Ponder 93) The probationer is required to pay a monthly supervision fee and a schedule to pay other fines and court fees imposed is set up between the offender and the probation officer.

Certain individuals have specific conditions of probation to which they must adhere. This is sometimes as a result of the crime they committed (including factors of the crime, such as drug abuse). Specific conditions include (but are not limited to): methadone maintenance, taking Antibuse, attending 12-Step meetings, drug testing, treatment (inpatient or outpatient), and vocational training. (Allen, Latessa, and Ponder 93) These conditions are imposed to aid the probationer in successful completion of their court ordered term of supervision. There has been an adequate success rate with these programs to date.

Special conditions of probation are additional punishments ordered by the courts and act to strengthen supervision. The goal is to reduce recidivism by addressing the underlying cause of the individuals’ criminal behavior as well as protect the local community. Special conditions of probation are: house arrest, electronic monitoring, intensive supervision, halfway house residency, boot camp programs and split sentences. (Allen, Latessa, and Ponder 93) Imposing these special conditions is at times the last line of defense for keeping the offender out of prison. In some cases, if probation is violated, additional conditions can be imposed in an effort to get the offender back on track.


Failure to adhere to these conditions, excessive violations of these conditions or failing to remain current on court mandated payments can result in probation revocation. When an offender is sentenced to a specific amount of time in jail or prison, that sentence is sometimes suspended in favor of placing the individual on probation. Repetitive violations or new charges can be cause to revoke that probation and resentence the offender or activate the sentence that they are currently on probation to avoid serving.

There are a variety of reasons offenders are unable to comply with the conditions of their probation. “Some are indifferent or hostile, being unwilling or unable to cooperate with their supervising officer or the court. Some are too immature emotionally to comply with directions.” (Allen, Latessa, and Ponder 93) Technical probation violations require the offender to re-appear in court in front of the judge. If the probationer fails to appear a warrant will be issued for their arrest. Revocation is a serious matter and the probationer has the right to counsel for the hearing.


The use of probation in our nations criminal justice system is widespread. Probation allows the offender the freedom to earn a living and support their family, it allows the community to feel safer knowing that these individuals are under close supervision, it saves the state money that could better be spent on reform rather than incarceration and the building of new prisons. The number of Americans currently on probation is astounding. According to the United Stated Department of Justice at the end of 2008 there were better than 4.2 million adults on probation and another almost 830,000 on parole. That number indicates that 1 in 45 adults in the U.S. is currently under community supervision. These figures show the importance of probation in America today.


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