Who Does What
Probation Officer: Qs & As



Does the probation officer help the judge decide what the sentence should be?
What goes into a presentence report?
What is supervised release?
Do probation officers supervise other offenders?
What are some typical conditions of release?
Is the officer’s main job to rehabilitate offenders or to police them?
How often does the PO see each offender?
Can the PO send the offender back to prison?
What are the requirements to become a federal probation officer?
What entity do probation officers work for?

Does the probation officer help the judge decide what the sentence should be?
Judges in the federal courts are bound by sentencing laws enacted by Congress. In addition, judges use Sentencing Guidelines issued by a body called the U.S. Sentencing Commission, as a source of advice as to the proper sentence. Sentencing requires an in-depth understanding of the offense itself and the offender’s background. Although the judge makes the final call on a sentence, he or she depends heavily on the PO’s presentence report and sentencing recommendation.

What goes into a presentence report?
The presentence report typically includes information from the pretrial services report, including the offender’s criminal history and personal circumstances. The presentence report goes into much more detail, however. Unlike the pretrial services report, it focuses on the specifics of the offense. For example, a bank robbery will result in different sentences depending on whether the offender carried, brandished, or used a gun. The impact of the crime on the victim is also taken into account.

What is supervised release?
It’s common today for a federal sentence to include a period of time in prison, followed by a period of time in the community called supervised release. A person on supervised release must follow conditions imposed by the court, based on his or her own situation, under the supervision of a probation officer. Failure to follow the court’s conditions can result in a return to prison. The term of supervised release can range from one to five years.

Do probation officers supervise other offenders?
A PO’s caseload includes probationers--offenders whose sentences consist of probation, perhaps with a fine, restitution, or community service, but with no prison time. It also includes parolees; however, federal parole, under which the U.S. Parole Commission released some offenders before their sentences ended, applies only to offenders sentenced before November 1, 1987, when the Sentencing Guidelines took effect. Only a few of these offenders who are eligible for parole are still being released from prison into community supervision by probation officers. Part of the theory of the Sentencing Guidelines is that the judge determines how much time the offender will spend in prison and how much time he or she will spend in community supervision, and this is not subject to change later. The parole system is still alive in the state courts.

What are some typical conditions of release?
Some conditions are common to all supervision cases, such as no illegal drug use. Others vary depending on the individual and the crime, such as regular urine tests for drug use, no travel outside a certain area, or no association with coconspirators. Some offenders are required to remain in their homes during certain hours and are monitored electronically to make sure they do so.

Is the officer’s main job to rehabilitate offenders or to police them?
The law gives the PO three supervision goals: enforcing the conditions of the sentence, reducing risk, and providing or arranging for correctional treatment for the offender. Everything the officer does is in furtherance of those goals--starting with the initial review of a newly assigned offender’s file and development of a case supervision plan. The officer identifies goals and potential problems, and figures out how to help the offender achieve the goals and prevent or deal with the problems.

How often does the PO see each offender?
How often the probation officer sees offenders varies widely depending on the supervision plan the officer has developed for each offender. Some offenders may require weekly meetings and even more frequent phone contact; for others, occasional contact is sufficient. Some meetings take place at the probation office; others, at the offender’s home or workplace. "Collateral contacts" with the offender’s family members, friends, neighbors, and employers can be extremely helpful in giving the officer a sense of how things are going in an offender’s life, what special risks or problems may be coming up, and whether action is needed.

Can the PO send the offender back to prison?
The probation officer can’t send an offender back to prison, but it is part of the officer's job to notify the court of an offender’s violation of a condition. Typically, if the officer learns of a minor violation of a condition or believes that a violation is likely, he or she tries to work with the offender to head off a more serious problem. Or the officer might ask the judge to modify the conditions of release to impose a restriction geared to helping the offender resist temptation or to require needed treatment. After a serious violation or repeated violations, the officer may believe that a particular offender can’t or won’t do what it takes to serve a sentence outside prison. It’s then the officer’s job to notify the judge and request a revocation of supervised release. The offender is entitled to a revocation hearing, at which the judge may decide to revoke the supervised release and send the offender back to prison.

What are the requirements to become a federal probation officer?
All federal probation officers are required to have bachelor’s degrees, usually in criminal justice or the social sciences. Many also have master’s degrees or work experience in a state or local probation system, criminal justice, or social work. The upper age limit for new officers is thirty-seven.

What entity do probation officers work for?
Probation officers work for the court, not the U.S. attorney or the police. Many pretrial services and probation officers describe themselves as "the eyes and ears of the court." More specifically, each district has a chief probation officer, a deputy chief probation officer, and several officers who supervise other officers. Most districts also have officers who specialize in supervising offenders with certain problems, such as drug abuse and mental illness.


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