Probation Essay

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Probation is a period of conditional release granted to some criminal offenders at the time of conviction. Probation involves the suspension of a sentence of incarceration contingent upon the offender’s agreement to abide by a number of conditions during a period of community supervision. If the offender violates any of these conditions of release, probation can be revoked, returning the offender to serve the sentence for the initial offense. The courts most often grant probation to those believed to pose a minimal threat to the community, such as juveniles and first-time offenders. More offenders are on probation than under any other form of correctional control.

Those on probation fall under the supervision of an agent of the court, known as a probation officer or agent. Probation agents fulfill a dual role: they assist offenders by connecting them with community resources while also monitoring offenders for violations of the conditions of their release. The extent of supervision will vary depending on the court-ordered conditions. For example, offenders who are considered low risk might be ordered to report to the supervising agent monthly, while those considered to pose a greater risk to the community might be subject to electronic monitoring and more frequent reporting.

Conditions of probation include but are not limited to an expectation that the offender will abstain from further legal violation. Common conditions include reporting to the supervising agent, fulfilling court obligations such as fines and court costs, and maintaining employment. Additional conditions are routinely tailored to the specific history of the probationer; for example, an offender convicted of drunk driving may be expected to abstain from the purchase, possession, and consumption of alcohol.

Probation was initially conceived as an alternative to punishment in cases for which it was believed that the offender could be successfully rehabilitated without serving a period of confinement. While precedents to probation exist in English common law, probation in its current form harks back to 1841, when a Boston shoemaker named John Augustus volunteered to supervise and assist a convicted offender whom he believed could be diverted from further criminality. The offender successfully reformed, and other men followed Augustus’s lead in volunteering to assist the reformation of convicted offenders. Massachusetts enacted the first probation legislation in 1878, with the rest of the United States following suit by 1925. Probation in various forms became widely adopted internationally in the early 1900s.

Recent concern regarding jail and prison overcrowding renewed interest in probation as a cost-saving alternative to incarceration. This resulted in the implementation of intensive supervision programs (ISPs) in an effort to expand the use of probation to more serious offenders. While ISPs vary by jurisdiction, their typical characteristics are frequent contact between probationers and supervising agents; the use of electronic monitoring to enforce curfews or house arrest; and a greater use of treatment programs than is characteristic of traditional probation.


  • Hamai, Koichi, Renaud Ville, Robert Harris, Mike Hough, and Ugljesa Zvekic, eds. 1995. Probation round the World: A Comparative Study. New York: Routledge.

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