Beginnings of Probation Services

The origin of probation can be traced to English criminal law of the Middle Ages. Harsh punishments were imposed on adults and children alike for offenses that were not always of a serious nature. Sentences such as branding, flogging, mutilation, and execution were common. During the time of King Henry VIII, for instance, no less than 200 crimes were punishable by death, many of which were minor offenses.

This harshness eventually led to discontent in certain progressive segments of English society that were concerned with the evolution of the justice system. Slowly but resolutely, in an effort to mitigate these inhumane punishments, a variety of measures were devised and adopted. Royal pardons could be purchased by the accused; activist judges could refrain from applying statutes or opt for a lenient interpretation of them; stolen property could be devalued by the court so that offenders could be charged with a lesser crime. Also, methods such as benefit of clergy, judicial reprieve, sanctuary, and abjuration offered offenders a degree of protection from the enactment of harsh sentences.

Eventually, the courts began the practice of "binding over for good behavior," a form of temporary release during which offenders could take measures to secure pardons or lesser sentences. Controversially, certain courts began suspending sentences.

Birth of Probation

portrait of John Augustus
John Augustus "Father of Probation"

 John Augustus, the "Father of Probation," is recognized as the first true probation officer. Augustus was born in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1785. By 1829, he was a permanent resident of Boston and the owner of a successful boot-making business. It was undoubtedly his membership in the Washington Total Abstinence Society that led him to the Boston courts. Washingtonians abstained from alcohol themselves and were convinced that abusers of alcohol could be rehabilitated through understanding, kindness, and sustained moral suasion, rather than through conviction and jail sentences.

In 1841, John Augustus attended police court to bail out a "common drunkard," the first probationer. The offender was ordered to appear in court three weeks later for sentencing. He returned to court a sober man, accompanied by Augustus. To the astonishment of all in attendance, his appearance and demeanor had dramatically changed.

Augustus thus began an 18-year career as a volunteer probation officer. Not all of the offenders helped by Augustus were alcohol abusers, nor were all prospective probationers taken under his wing. Close attention was paid to evaluating whether or not a candidate would likely prove to be a successful subject for probation. The offender's character, age, and the people, places, and things apt to influence him or her were all considered.

Augustus was subsequently credited with founding the investigations process, one of three main concepts of modern probation, the other two being intake and supervision. Augustus, who kept detailed notes on his activities, was also the first to apply the term "probation" to his method of treating offenders.

By 1858, John Augustus had provided bail for 1,946 men and women. Reportedly, only 10 of this number forfeited their bond, a remarkable accomplishment when measured against any standard. His reformer's zeal and dogged persistence won him the opposition of certain segments of Boston society as well as the devotion and aid of many Boston philanthropists and organizations. The first probation statute, enacted in Massachusetts shortly after this death in 1859, was widely attributed to his efforts.

Probation — from the latin verb "probare" — to prove, to test. A term coined by John Augustus.

Following the passage of that first statute, probation spread gradually throughout the United States. The juvenile court movement contributed greatly to the development of probation as a legally-recognized method of dealing with offenders. The first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899. Formalization of the intake process is credited to the founders of the Illinois juvenile court. Soon after, 30 states introduced probation as a part of the juvenile court procedure. Today, all states offer both juvenile and adult probation.

Matthew Davenport Hill, a lawyer from England is also noted to have contributed to the development of modern probation. Hill had witnessed the sentencing of youthful offenders to one-day terms on the condition that they be returned to a parent or guardian who would closely supervise them. When he eventually became the Recorder of Birmingham, a judicial post, he used a similar practice for individuals who did not seem hopelessly corrupt. If offenders demonstrated a promise for rehabilitation, they were placed in the hands of generous guardians who willingly took charge of them. Hill had police officers pay periodic visits to these guardians in an effort to track the offender's progress and keep a running account.

Probation in the United States

In the United States, particularly in Massachusetts, different practices were being developed. "Security for good behavior," also known as “good aberrance,” was much like modern bail: the accused paid a fee as collateral for good behavior. Filing was also practiced in cases that did not demand an immediate sentence. Using this procedure, indictments were "laid on file" or held in abeyance. To mitigate unreasonable mandatory penalties, judges often granted a motion to quash based upon minor technicalities or errors in the proceedings. Although these American practices were precursors to probation, it is the early use of recognizance and suspended sentence that are directly related to modern probation.

Even with the wide use of suspended sentences, the U.S. Department of Justice disapproved of its use, believing that it infringed upon executive pardoning power and therefore was unconstitutional. The matter came before the Supreme Court in Ex parte United States, 242 U.S. 27. In what became known as the Killits decision, the Supreme Court in 1916 held that federal courts did not have the power to suspend sentence indefinitely and that there was no reason or right for the courts to continue the practice. The Supreme Court suggested probation legislation as a remedy.

Establishing probation as a sentencing option in the federal courts did not happen quickly or easily. Opinion on the wisdom of doing so was sharply divided. Some federal judges were for probation, seeing it as an alternative to the sometimes harsh penalties they were compelled to impose. Other federal judges were against probation, finding it too lenient. Congress could not reach agreement on a national plan. The first bills for a federal probation law had been introduced in Congress in 1909. But it was not until 1925--and after more than 30 bills had been introduced--that one such bill became law.

The Probation Act of 1925, signed by President Calvin Coolidge, provided for a probation system in the federal courts (except in the District of Columbia). It gave the courts the power to suspend the imposition or execution of sentence and place defendants on probation for such period and on such terms and conditions as they deemed best. The Act also authorized courts to appoint one or more persons to serve as probation officers without compensation and one salaried probation officer. The first federal probation officer was appointed in 1927 in the District of Massachusetts.

Initially, the administration of federal probation was the responsibility of the Office of the Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice. Direct supervision fell to the superintendent of prisons, who was also in charge of prison industries and parole. In effect, federal probation officers answered to two authorities. Although the Attorney General set their salaries and provided for expenses such as clerical services and travel, judges appointed them. This arrangement changed in 1940, when general oversight of the probation system was transferred from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Launch of Pretrial Services

In 1974 Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act. Title II of the Act authorized the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to establish "demonstration" pretrial services agencies in 10 judicial districts. The goal was to reduce crime by persons released to the community pending trial and to reduce unnecessary pretrial detention. The agencies were to interview each person charged with other than a petty offense, verify background information, and present a report to the judicial officer considering bail. The agencies also were to supervise persons released to their custody pending trial and to help defendants on bail locate and use community services. Five of the agencies were administered by the Administrative Office and five by boards of trustees appointed by the chief judges of the district courts.

President Ronald Reagan signed the Pretrial Services Act of 1982. The Act authorized expansion of pretrial services from the ten demonstration districts to every federal judicial district (except the District of Columbia). It granted an 18-month evaluation period for each court to decide whether to establish separate pretrial services offices or provide pretrial services through the probation office. Consequently, each court chose the form of pretrial services organization that best met its needs, considering such factors as criminal caseload and court locations. Expanding pretrial services to all districts marked a significant milestone for what was now the "federal probation and pretrial services system." Now officers were involved in the criminal justice process from the time a person was arrested on a federal charge until he or she completed community supervision.

US Probation and Pretrial Services Milestones

Year Description
1925 President Calvin Coolidge signs the Probation Act of 1925, establishing probation as a sentence in the federal courts.
1927 The first federal probation officer, Richard McSweeney, is appointed in the District of Massachusetts.
1930 Congress creates the National Parole Board and amends the Probation Act to give officers responsibility to supervise federal parolees.
1937 The first issue of the scholarly journal Federal Probation is published.
1943 The first policy monograph, The Presentence Investigation Report, tells officers how to conduct presentence investigations and prepare reports.
1946 Officers take on the duty of investigating the parole plans of Army and Air Force prisoners and supervising them following release from disciplinary barracks.
1950 A national training center is established in Chicago to provide officers with orientation and refresher training.
1955 Officers form their own professional organization, the Federal Probation and Pretrial Officers Association (link is external).
1963 The Judicial Conference of the United States forms a permanent committee—the Committee on the Administration of the Probation System—expressly to address probation system issues.
1975 Pretrial services agencies are established as an experiment in ten districts. The Judicial Conference of the United States adopts a policy that allows each district court to decide whether officers carry firearms.
Early policies discouraged officers from carrying firearms and suggested that doing so was inconsistent with probation work--that in supervising individuals, officers assumed a helping role, not a law enforcement one. In the 1970's, however, the Judicial Conference began to see circumstances in which arming officers might be prudent. The 1975 policy statement still presumed that officers should not be armed--unless their assignments subjected them to serious risk of physical harm. A decade passed before the Judicial Conference addressed the matter of firearms training. In 1987, in two-week training sessions held in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Galveston, Texas, the system's first firearms instructors were trained to teach firearms handling and safety in their respective districts.
1978 Congress gives the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts the authority to provide contract aftercare treatment services to drug-dependent persons under probation system supervision.
1982 President Ronald Reagan signs the Pretrial Services Act, which authorizes expansion of pretrial services to each district court.
1984 The Bail Reform Act allows judges to consider danger to the community as a factor in deciding whether to release or detain persons awaiting trial.
The Bail Reform Act radically changed the pretrial process in that it permitted courts to detain dangerous defendants. Previously, courts did not consider danger to the community in deciding whether to release or detain persons awaiting trial. This new development increased the number of persons detained to such an extent that, within a few years, the nation faced a national pretrial detention crisis. The increase in detention rates affected where defendants were housed while awaiting trial and when trials were scheduled. It hampered access to defendants by pretrial services officers and other parties in the criminal justice process. As a result of the situation, the Judicial Conference of the United States implored Congress to provide sufficient funding for adequate housing and supervision of pretrial detainees and encouraged use of alternatives to incarceration for some defendants, including community supervision and home confinement.
1986 The Sentencing Reform Act fundamentally changes the sentencing process in the federal courts.
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was passed in response to congressional concern about fairness in sentencing. The Act completely changed the way courts sentenced federal offenders. The Act created a new federal agency, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, to set sentencing guidelines for every federal offense. When federal sentencing guidelines went into effect on November 1, 1987, they significantly altered judges’ sentencing discretion, officers’ preparation of the presentence investigation report, and officers’ overall role in the sentencing process. The new sentencing scheme also placed officers in a more adversarial environment in the courtroom, where attorneys might dispute facts, question guideline calculations, and object to the information in the presentence report. In addition to providing for a new sentencing process, the Act also replaced parole with "supervised release," a term of community supervision to be served by prisoners after they completed prison terms.
1986 U.S. Probation Officer Thomas Gahl (Southern District of Indiana) is killed in the line of duty.
On September 22, 1986, U.S. Probation Officer Thomas Gahl was slain by a mentally ill parolee under his supervision. Officer Gahl, who was 38 years old, was gunned down during a routine home visit. His death–the first and, to date, the only, officer line-of-duty death in the system–underscored the risks inherent in supervising an increasingly dangerous offender population and the critical importance of officer safety training.
1986 The home confinement program is launched in the federal courts.
The Special Curfew Program was the federal courts’ first use of home confinement. It was part of an experimental program–a cooperative venture of the Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Parole Commission, and the federal probation system–as an alternative to Bureau of Prisons Community Treatment Center (CTC) residence for eligible inmates. These inmates, instead of CTC placement, received parole dates advanced a maximum of 60 days and were subject to a curfew and minimum weekly contact with a probation officer. Electronic monitoring became part of the home confinement program several years later. In 1988, a pilot program was launched in two districts to evaluate the use of electronic equipment to monitor persons in the curfew program. The program was expanded nationally in 1991 and grew to include offenders on probation and supervised release and defendants on pretrial supervision as those who may be eligible to be placed on home confinement with electronic monitoring.
1989 Probation officers begin to receive for supervision persons sentenced to serve a term of supervised release.
Phasing out parole and tightening sentencing requirements changed community supervision. The introduction of supervised release and increases in drug prosecutions and other serious cases caused a shift away from probation cases. As a result, most persons who came under supervision of federal probation officers had not been sentenced to probation, but sentenced to prison terms to be followed by community supervision.
1999 The Judicial Conference of the United States adopts a policy requiring updated background investigations for officers and officer assistants.
2000 The Judicial Conference of the United States adopts a workplace drug testing program for officers and officer assistants and a zero tolerance policy for the use of controlled substances.
2001 Officers take on responsibility to obtain DNA samples from persons under their supervision who have been convicted of certain crimes.
2002 The Judicial Conference of the United States adopts medical requirements and guidelines for officers and officer assistants.
2005 A national training academy for new officers is established at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Charleston, South Carolina.
In partnership with FLETC, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts launched a national training academy for officers. The academy provided the means to offer new officers training as soon as possible after they were appointed by their courts and to provide them with comprehensive and uniform training. In addition to new officers, the academy offered an ideal environment for training officers who served as firearms and safety instructors in their districts.