As the name suggests, probation officers oversee individuals who have been assigned probation by the criminal justice system as a condition of release. Most officers specialize in either adult or youth cases. While assisting in rehabilitation efforts, they help their clients become productive members of society. Officers must create treatment plans and record behaviors for court records. Due to the range of skills needed, a college degree is required.
Probation officers interact with a wide variety of people and, therefore, need excellent communication skills. In addition, since some of their clients may be stressed or openly hostile, a calm and composed demeanor is an asset. Since probation officers assess their clients' status and needs, and then create workable plans, they must have organizational, decision-making and critical-thinking skills. Writing statements to document clients' probationary periods and reporting to the courts is a regular part of the job, so probation officers must be proficient writers. On a more basic level, most jurisdictions require officers to be at least 21 with no felony convictions. They must also pass a drug screening.
Most prospective probation officers must have at least a bachelor's degree. In the majority of cases, this will take four years. Most commonly, the degree is in social work, criminal justice or psychology. Employers often want to hire individuals who have related job experience in such areas as social work, counseling, substance abuse treatment or law enforcement. If this background is lacking, applicants may need a master's in an associated field; this traditionally adds another two years of education. In addition, a master's degree is often needed for promotion within the profession.
Although most jurisdictions look for applicants with a bachelor's degree, an appropriate two-year associate's degree might be acceptable, especially if you have relevant work experience. Often the associate's degree is in criminal justice. This course of study includes classes in criminal behavior, the legal system, drug abuse and prevention, and psychology.
Education for probation officers extends beyond college. Even after the associate's, bachelor's, or master's degree is attained, potential probation officers must attend a training course specifically designed for the field. Many additional hours of study are necessary to complete this program; for example, 200 training hours are required in the state of California. The course covers specific job-related topics such as the state criminal justice system, restitution and fines, court reports and the casework relationship. After this is completed, successful attendees receive certification in the field.