You are here

History of Probation and Pretrial Services

The first legislation for Federal Probation Law was introduced in 1909, one of which was prepared by the New York State Probation Commission and the National Probation Association (later known as the American Probation and Parole Association) and introduced before Congress by United States Senator Robert L. Owen of Oklahoma. The bill provided for a suspension of a sentence, in U.S. District Court, and a sentence of probation. The bill also provided for compensation of $5 per diem for Federal Probation Officers. This first attempt did not pass and through 1909 to 1925 there were 34 bills introduced to establish federal probation law.

In 1925, the Federal Probation Act was introduced by Senator Copeland as S.1042 and Representative Graham as H.R. 5195. The U.S. Senate passed in unanimously but the House passed the law by a vote of 170 in favor and 49 opposed. On March 4, 1925, President Calvin Coolidge, a former Governor of Massachusetts and very familiar with the benefits of a functioning probation system, signed the bill in law. This Act gave the U.S. Courts the power to appoint Federal Probation Officers and authority to sentence defendants to probation instead of a prison sentence. It later gave U.S. Probation Officers the responsibility of supervising offenders granted parole by the United States Parole Commission, military offenders and pretrial supervision. The responsibility of the United States Probation Service was first under the United States Department of Justice, under the supervising authority of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, however, in 1940 the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts was established and assumed the responsibility.

U.S. Pretrial Services came along more than 50 years later, in 1982, with the Pretrial Services Act of 1982. It was developed as a means to reduce both crimes committed by persons released into the community pending trial and unnecessary pretrial detention. Some districts have both a separate U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Offices. However, as of recent a trend to re-combine both of these offices are on the increase. This trend has increased since the budget crisis that resulted after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

United States Probation Officers, also referred to as Federal Probation Officers, are the only cadre of Federal Law Enforcement Officers unique to the Federal Judiciary. Despite their law enforcement status and authority within the federal government, their investigators are referred to as Officers, not Special Agents. The Federal Probation Office emphasizes their unique role as law enforcement officers and social case workers. They hold the responsibility to investigate and supervise persons charged with and convicted of crimes against the United States. They have statutory authority to carry firearms and have jurisdiction over felons convicted in federal courts.

Most districts require that all new officers attend the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center upon initial employment. Officers are eligible for a 20 year retirement and must be appointed prior to their 37th birthday. Almost all districts require prior experience in a similar field, a background suitability investigation, drug test, and medical examination as a pre-requisite for hiring.

Federal Probation is unique to other federal law enforcement agencies in that they are regionally aligned to their geographical districts, rather than a single headquarters element. All officers within a district report to their Chief Probation Officer, who in turn serves the Chief District Judge. The national element in DC performs an administrative function and does not hold operational authority over the various Chief Probation Officers.

Many districts have split their Probation Officers into Pre-Sentence Investigation Units and Supervision Units. Pre-Sentence Investigators conduct comprehensive investigations into the background of defendants convicted of federal crimes. Upon completion of their investigation, they are required to submit a sentencing recommendation to the presiding judge. Often, they are also asked to confer privately with judges regarding their recommendation. Officers assigned to Supervision Units supervise felons convicted of federal crimes who are released into society on either Supervised Release or Probation. Supervision Officers must enforce court ordered conditions and are mandated to use their discretion and skills to mitigate the offenders risk to society. Both Supervision Officers and Pre-Sentence Investigators deal with a wide range of offenders, many of whom have extensive criminal histories.