What does a probation officer do?

If you think a probation officer simply supervises criminal offenders, Paul Poblete says you're understanding only one-third of what his work can entail. As the Deputy Chief United States Probation Officer in New Orleans, Poblete says his job is multi-faceted, but can be a rewarding career choice for people who want to help others.

Poblete spoke to us to share what it's like to be a probation officer and what these professionals do within the criminal justice system.

What does a probation officer do?

Deputy Chief Poblete says a federal probation officer's duties can be broken down into three categories:

  • Pretrial services: When working in this capacity, individuals may be called pretrial services officers. They interview defendants and use other information to prepare a pretrial services report, which covers such things as a defendant's family attachments, employment and whether they previously failed to appear at court hearings. Within the report, the officer makes recommendations to the court regarding any conditions that may be placed on a defendant's release, such as electronic monitoring. A probation officer may also supervise defendants who are out on a pretrial release.

As needed, officers work to help offenders reevaluate their thinking patterns to encourage positive behaviors.

  • Pre-sentence phase: Once a defendant has been convicted, a probation officer prepares a pre-sentence report. This comprehensive document not only covers the details surrounding the crime but also outlines things such as family history, substance abuse, criminal history, medical conditions and other relevant information that may be used by the court during sentencing.
  • Post-conviction supervision: This final duty is probably what most people think about when considering what it's like to be a probation officer. Post-conviction supervision involves an officer checking in regularly with an offender to ensure court conditions are being met. As needed, officers work to help offenders reevaluate their thinking patterns to encourage positive behaviors.

"The most important aspect for us is that we provide the court with accurate information to make its decisions," Poblete says. "The recommendations we make are affecting people's lives."

What makes a good probation officer?

Probation officers typically need a bachelor's degree, and Poblete says a background in behavioral science or psychology can be helpful.

"You're dealing with people who manipulate, lie, cheat and even murder," he notes. "You have to [know how to] deal with that behavior."

probation officer responsibilities

A good probation officer knows how to treat individuals with respect while still being able to hold them accountable and call them out on bad behavior. Probation officers must act without prejudice and have an even-keeled temperament. Poblete says people who have lived sheltered lives may have difficulty adjusting to the variety of people who come through the court systems, and the best probation officers may be those who have been exposed to a number of life situations and personality types.

Probation officers must act without prejudice and have an even-keeled temperament.

Those who do enter the field may find it rewarding on multiple levels. Individuals who enjoy helping others may be drawn to the post-conviction supervision aspect of the job. Meanwhile, analytical types may find the pre-sentencing phase to be appealing.

"[The career] is a good option if you enjoy working with people, want to help and want to use your brain," Poblete says.

What is the best part of the job?

For Deputy Chief Poblete, the answer is easy. It's when offenders walk away at the end of probation and never return.

"The success stories are the people you never see again," he says. "Then you know you made an impact on someone's life."

Working on pretrial and pre-sentence reports can also be rewarding. Officers can feel good knowing their work is helping the courts make wise decisions that will keep a community safe.

What should you know before getting started in this career?

Poblete says future probation officers should know the job involves interacting with different people from all walks of life, a fact that doesn't really hit home until you're on the job.

"Nothing prepares you for dealing with human frailty," he says. "I wasn't really aware of the wide spectrum of people [in our communities]." Deputy Chief Poblete has been working for more than 21 years but says he still regularly comes across new situations.

For those who think they have the right combination of a cool personality and critical-thinking skills, life as a probation officer starts with a four-year degree — check out online degrees in law enforcement. For those who want to be a United States probation officer like Poblete, they'll need to work at the state or local level first before being able to assist in federal courts.

1. Paul Poblete, Chief Deputy United States Probation Officer, interviewed June 2015
2. Probation Officer Q&As, Federal Judicial Center, http://www.fjc.gov/federal/courts.nsf/autoframe?OpenForm&nav=menu5b&page=/federal/courts.nsf/page/360?opendocument
3. Probation Pre-Sentence Investigation, American Probation and Parole Association, https://www.appa-net.org/eweb/Dynamicpage.aspx?site=APPA_2&webcode=IB_PositionStatement&wps_key=24e1c1d8-c753-4710-8f89-6085c6191128