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The first probation officer was John Augustus, a bootmaker from Boston, MA. When he became a member of the Washington Total Abstinence Society, he developed a belief that abusers of alcohol could be rehabilitated through understanding and kindness rather than jail sentences. In 1841, he attended police court to bail out a “common drunkard” and found that the man had drastically changed his life after being released from court. This inspired him to begin an 18-year career as a volunteer probation officer. Augustus founded investigation, supervision, and intake processes, and he transformed many lives for the better. He is now known as “The Father of Probation.”

Probation's Scope and Services

Probation is a tool to hold people accountable and oversee their rehabilitation progress. In California, probation provides corrections and prevention programs, enforces court orders, supervises convicted offenders, makes sentencing recommendations to the court, investigates offenders’ backgrounds, and operates facilities for detained and adjudicated juvenile offenders and, in some cases, sentenced adult offenders. Probation works with adults, juveniles, convicted persons, and pretrial programs. Each of the 58 counties in California has one probation department, except for the county of San Francisco, which has a separate adult and juvenile probation department. A Chief Probation Officer runs each department and appoints officials who administer the department and oversee operations.

Probation's Impact

In California, probation uses evidence-based practices supported by scientific research and administered by trained experts. Probation serves as an arm of the court and connects the courts, state, and local governments. The supervision, programs, supports and services that probation officers give justice-involved individuals the tools to be held accountable for their conviction and make positive life changes to rehabilitate. The goal of probation is to prevent crime, promote safe and healthy communities, enhance offender rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

Key Probation Practices

Probation Departments across the State of California are responsible for providing effective services and programs to the individuals under their supervision. There are several key probation practices that are used by Probation Departments to reduce the likelihood of future involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These practices include evidence-based practices, data collection, research and evaluation, and collaborative efforts.[1]

Organizational Structure, Staffing, and Funding

Counties can vary in how they structure their Probation Department but there are key similarities. Of the fifty-eight counties in California, all Probation Departments but one is led by a Chief Probation Officer who has oversight over adult probation, juvenile probation, juvenile detention facility, camps and ranches, and other juvenile commitment facilities. One county, San Francisco, has a separate Chief Probation Officer for adult probation and juvenile probation. Probation Departments are staffed by numerous classifications that perform various functions throughout the Department. All Probation Departments have multilayered hiring processes and training requirements. Funding for Probation Departments comes from a variety of sources, which vary in their requirements to publicly report how that money is spent.

Evolution of Probation

California has gone through many changes regarding the role of Probation Departments over the years. To understand how the role of probation has changed and developed, a look at the history of probation in California is important.

Probation in Adult System

California’s Probation Departments play various roles throughout the adult criminal justice system. Probation is often referred to as an “arm of the court”. They are expected to serve as a neutral party in providing judges in adult criminal court with the information necessary to make sentencing decisions. If adults are sentenced to community supervision, the Probation Department is responsible for their supervision and ensuring that they are offered the appropriate rehabilitative services to reduce recidivism. Probation Departments also manage and operate pretrial assessment and monitoring programs throughout the State.

Key California Statutes Affecting Probation

Adult and Juvenile Similarities and Differences

Probation departments in California are responsible for adult and juvenile probation services, which include community supervision. Juvenile probation also includes oversight and operation of juvenile detention facilities, camps, and ranches. Each county has one chief probation officer that is responsible for the entire department except for San Francisco County, which has a separate adult chief probation officer and juvenile chief probation officer.

Regulations and Oversight

In addition to the various statutes contained in the California Government Code, Welfare and Institutions Code, and Penal Code, there are also various regulations the Probation Department must follow in the operation of juvenile and adult probation services. Additionally, there are numerous agencies that provide direct oversight to Probation Departments to ensure they are abiding by various statutes, rules, and regulations.

Probation's Role in the Juvenile Justice System

The Probation Department has a unique role in the juvenile justice system. After a youth has been arrested by law enforcement, probation departments can divert youth deemed appropriate for diversion programs from the juvenile justice system at various decision-points. When a youth has been ordered to be detained by the juvenile court, probation departments operate juvenile halls, camps, ranches and secure youth treatment facilities, ensuring the safety and well-being of youth, while providing a variety of services to assist youth and meet their individual needs. The probation department serves as an arm of the court and is a neutral party in assisting judges by providing information to the court for decision making in the interest of the youth. Probation departments divert many youth from the justice system, which helps keep the amount of youth in the juvenile justice system and detained in juvenile halls, camps, ranches, or secure youth treatment facilities to a lower number. The probation department also provides youth with opportunities to make positive changes in their lives and provides evidence-based programming and supportive and transitional services in an effort to reduce recidivism and further involvement in the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems.