9 myths about probation officers

There are two constants about being a probation officer: nothing is ever the same and the only expected is the unexpected


By Jennifer Gastelum

Probation officers are often hidden in the community and they can be a bit of a mystery ‒ you know they are out there, but nobody has an idea of what they do.

Probation officers carry out court mandates related to individuals placed on probation. Court orders are called Conditions of Probation and the probation officer must ensure defendants comply with their conditions.

In this June 20, 2017 photo, Scott Tubbs checks in on one of the 140 cases he handles in Baton Rouge, La. Tubbs is the Baton Rouge probation and parole office's lone mental health specialist. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)
In this June 20, 2017 photo, Scott Tubbs checks in on one of the 140 cases he handles in Baton Rouge, La. Tubbs is the Baton Rouge probation and parole office's lone mental health specialist. (AP Photo/R.J. Rico)

Probation officers are the “eyes and ears" for the court. They monitor and attempt to modify conduct by encouraging positive behavior, decreasing negative behavior through sanctions, and reporting their findings to the court. Probation officers answer directly to the judge regarding their behavior and decisions along with those of their defendants.

Probation officers are said to wear many hats. Their primary goal is to promote change in defendants to help them become productive members of society. Officers evaluate their need for services, make appropriate referrals, monitor progress and provide sanctions when appropriate. They are social workers, counselors, referees, educators and law enforcers, all in the same position.

One of their most important duties is promoting public safety. If a defendant continually fails to be compliant or poses a risk to themselves or others, they can be arrested and taken before the court for the judge to decide their fate. On any given day, a probation officer may start in business attire in a court proceeding, hold office visits with defendants and end up in the field with a vest and a gun.

I have been a probation officer since 1996 and have worked in the Midwest and the Southwest. I recently transferred to Intensive Probation Services, but the bulk of my career has been in standard supervision. There are many misconceptions I have run into over the years related to the job duties of a probation officer. Here are nine myths about probation officers debunked.

Myth 1: Probation officers primarily work in an office.

Reality: Many departments have split divisions where some officers work in field supervision while the others prepare presentence reports, which are used by the court as they provide background information for sentencing. Presentence writers work primarily in the office. Field officers work in the office preparing paperwork and seeing defendants and also in the field performing home, employment and treatment visits. In some departments, officers perform both duties.

Myth 2: Everyone on probation has been to jail or prison.

Reality: There are times when defendants have not spent a day in jail or prison. Where I work, police officers can long-form charges and the defendant will be summoned to court. In these cases, defendants can proceed through the entire sentencing process without serving any time in custody. Prison sentences are typically ordered when probation has been revoked.  

Myth 3: Probation and parole are the same.

Reality: Parole officers supervise defendants released from prison; probation is typically before a prison sentence. Probation sentences are typically 18 months to 3 years, where parole is a percentage of their original sentence so it can range from a few months to years. Some agencies combine both probation and parole supervision with probation cases being reported to the courts and parole being reported to the parole board. Where I work, probation officers are employed by the county while the parole officers work for the state and they are separate entities.

Myth 4: Probation means strict supervision 24 hours a day.

Reality: Many probation departments have a range of supervision available depending upon the risk level of the defendant. Where I work, Intensive Probation Services is comprised of a two-person team that provides 24-hour monitoring for approximately 25 high-risk defendants. These defendants are on a schedule and must have permission from their team for any deviation. Standard probation is typically one officer to 70 defendants. At this level, defendants typically report to the office one time per month and have random home visits. There are also minimum caseloads, which have several hundred defendants to one officer, and unsupervised probation. The bulk of supervision is at the standard level.

Myth 5: a Defendant can be arrested the first time they commit a violation, such as using illegal drugs.

Reality: We work with defendants to create changes in negative behaviors and will rarely arrest for a single violation. If the negative behavior does not improve or they pose a significant risk to themselves or the community, then an arrest may be warranted. Our primary job is to try to facilitate a positive change in behavior. If a defendant is arrested for the first violation they commit, the court will surely return them to our caseload and direct us to work with them further.

Myth 6: Probation officers want to be police officers.

Reality: While there are some want-to-be police officers, I can say that the great majority do not. I can speak for myself and say yes, I share law enforcement memes but only because they apply, and they do not make probation officer memes! I, in no way, want to be a police officer. I love the flexibility my job provides, and I still feel that I contribute to protecting the community.  

Myth 7: Probation officers are lazy, which is why they call the police when they find illegal items.

Reality: The court places more weight on a new law violation than a probation violation. If we seize illegal items, it will only be a probation violation. Probation officers cannot arrest for new charges, only violations of probation.

Myth 8: Probation officers are not peace officers.

Reality: In some departments that may be true, but in the state where I work, we are “limited” peace officers. Our peace officer status is limited to when we are on duty and our powers only pertain to individuals on supervision, not the public. Our limited peace officer status is what allows us to affect our own arrest.

Myth 9: probation officers do not need a badge, vest and gun.

Reality: In my career, I have been assaulted, sustained three concussions at work, been threatened with a knife. A few of our officers were involved in a fatal shooting last year attempting to take an absconder into custody. As I write this, two probation officers were fired upon in Atlanta while performing a home visit. Most of our fieldwork is conducted solo, therefore we are alone with our defendants and their collaterals on their turf. Also, where I work, we perform searches, clear residences, and affect and transport arrests.

The bottom line is that every probation department is distinct and carries out their duties differently. Most of what we do is not widely seen by the public and probation remains a bit of a mystery. The one constant with being a probation officer is nothing is ever the same and the only expected is the unexpected.


About the author

Along with being a senior probation officer in the Southwest, Jennifer Gastelum is a certified health and nutrition coach with Thin Blue Line Health and Nutrition Coaching. Her passion is working solely with law enforcement, helping them take back control of their lives.  

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