Overview of the National Probation System
In 1841, long before the federal probation system came into being, John Augustus, a cobbler by trade, persuaded a police court in Boston, Massachusetts to release a “drunkard” to his custody with the understanding that Augustus would attempt to rehabilitate the man in preparation for sentencing. Three weeks later, the man appeared for sentencing accompanied by Augustus, and to the surprise of all those in attendance, the man’s appearance and demeanor had improved dramatically. During the 18-year period that followed, Augustus continued his probation work on a voluntary basis, earning recognition as the nation’s first “probation officer.”
Although Augustus began his probation work during 1841, more than three decades passed before the first probation legislation was enacted in the United States. Specifically, in 1878 Massachusetts became the first state to pass probation laws, when it enacted a statute requiring an official State probation system with salaried probation officers. Many other states quickly followed suit; however, it was not until 1925, when President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Probation Act of 1925, that a formal probation system was adopted at the federal level. This Act gave the federal 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 the court deemed best. The Act also authorized the courts to appoint one or more persons to serve as probation officers without compensation, and one salaried probation officer. The first probation officers, three in number, were appointed in fiscal year 1927, at a beginning salary of $2,400 per year. Applicants had to be high school graduates or have at least 14 credits toward a college degree. If an applicant did not meet these requirements, but was otherwise qualified, he or she could take a 75 minute, noncompetitive “mental test.” Experience requirements were set at either 1 year of paid probation work, or at least three years in paid systemic and organized social work with an established social agency (1 year of college with courses in social sciences could be substituted for each year lacking of this experience). Applicants could be no younger than age 21, nor older than age 54. Retirement was set at age 70.
From the inception of the federal probation system, U.S. probation officers were charged with the responsibility of conducting investigations of any cases referred to them by the federal courts and supervising offenders placed on probation in the community. Initially, the federal probation system operated under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Attorney General, with the responsibility of direct supervision falling to the Superintendent of Prisons (now known as the Federal Bureau of Prisons). This arrangement changed in 1940, when general oversight of the federal probation system was transferred from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which had been established one year prior.
As previously noted, U.S. probation officers were initially charged with the responsibility of conducting investigations of cases referred to them by the federal courts and supervising offenders. In 1930, Congress created the Board of Parole and amended the Probation Act to expand probation officers’ responsibilities to include supervising federal parolees. A further expansion of these responsibilities occurred during 1946, when the federal probation system agreed to take on the duty of investigating the parole plans of Army and Air Force prisoners and to supervise these individuals upon their release from disciplinary barracks. From a total of eight probation officers nationwide during 1930, the federal probation system grew to include 303 probation officers supervising 30,087 offenders by 1950.
During the second quarter century of the federal probation system’s existence, years 1950 through 1975, federal sentencing philosophy and practice followed the rehabilitation model, which placed strong emphasis on the treatment of offenders. Toward that end, Congress enacted various statues which provided the federal courts with a new array of sentencing alternatives. Among the most notable laws enacted were the Youth Corrections Act of 1950, which provided a system for the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders aged 18 to 26; the Act of August 25, 1958, which allowed federal judges to impose adult sentences on which defendants would be eligible for parole consideration after serving less than one-third of the maximum sentence; the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, which laid the foundation for the Federal Defenders’ program; the Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Act of 1965, which authorized work release, emergency furloughs, and the establishment of residential treatment centers by the Federal Bureau of Prisons; and the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act of 1966, which permitted federal courts and the criminal justice system to compel drug addicts to participate in substance abuse treatment.
The years 1950 through 1975 were also marked by a maturing and professionalization of the federal probation system. In November 1949 the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, in cooperation with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, established a training center in Chicago for the federal probation service. The Chicago Training Center, under the direction of the chief probation officer in Chicago, sought and obtained the cooperation of the University of Chicago in developing courses of instruction. Various recognized leaders in correctional and related fields served as the Center’s faculty, providing an indoctrination course for newly appointed officers, and periodic refresher courses for all officers. Training continued at the Chicago Training Center until 1970, when this function was transferred to the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. The training tradition that began during the early part of the twentieth century continues to remain a top priority for administrators of the federal probation system. Newly appointed officers still participate in training at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, and all officers participate in annual training courses in order to maintain the highest level of proficiency in their profession.
The years since 1975 have witnessed several events which dramatically changed federal sentencing practices and significantly impacted the federal probation system. Most notably, during 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (which included the Sentencing Reform Act) was passed in response to congressional concern about fairness in sentencing. This Act completely changed the way the federal courts sentenced offenders by abolishing federal parole and creating a new federal agency, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, to set sentencing guidelines for every federal offense. When the United States Sentencing Guidelines went into effect on November 1, 1987, they ushered in a new era in federal sentencing. These guidelines greatly limited judges’ sentencing discretion, altered probation officers’ preparation of presentence reports, and transformed the officers’ overall role in the sentencing process. Under the new sentencing scheme, officers were placed in a more adversarial environment in the courtroom, where attorneys might dispute facts, question guideline calculations, and object to information presented in the presentence report. The Sentencing Reform Act also replaced parole with “supervised release,” a term of community supervision to be served by offenders after they completed prison terms. In 1975, more than two-thirds of the offenders who were under community supervision were probationers. The quarter century that followed saw a dramatic increase in the number of offenders who were sentenced to terms of imprisonment. This increase has been attributed, in part, to Congressional passage of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug trafficking offenses and a prosecutorial emphasis on drug trafficking crimes. As a result, by 2004 more than 70% of the federal offenders under community supervision were supervised releasees, rather than probationers.
Extensive amendments were made to the United States Sentencing Guidelines during the years that followed their initial release; however, the basic premise that federal courts’ adherence to these guidelines was mandatory remained unchanged until January 12, 2005, when the United States Supreme Court rendered its opinion in United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005). This landmark case effectively transformed the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines into advisory guidelines that federal judges must consider in imposing sentence, together with the factors set forth by Congress in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).