Part Social Worker, Part Cop: The Life of Probation and Parole Officers

On the Beat With Probation and Parole Officers

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The once-booming private prison industry has experienced a bust: A recent NPR report noted that although the U.S. still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, its total prison population is declining for the first time in three decades. A falling crime rate is one reason, but states are also slashing funding for expensive correctional facilities and turning to sentencing alternatives to keep more felons out of prison.

That’s likely to create more work – and jobs – for probation and parole officers, who supervise people who have been convicted of crimes and offered alternatives to prison (probation officers) or have been released early from prison (parole officers). Employment of probation and parole officers is projected to grow faster than average between 2008 and 2018, at about 19 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A corrections job that's part social worker, part cop

Being a probation or parole officer is a tough but rewarding job – many probation or parole officers describe their role as being part social worker, part cop. While ensuring that each offender follows the sentence (such as community service) or program (such as drug rehabilitation or domestic violence awareness training) prescribed for them by the judge or parole commission, they also aid them to reintegrate into society.

 Lisa White, a federal probation officer who supervises offenders in and around St. Louis, has a master’s degree in social work but says she originally wanted to be a police officer. The combination of helping people get their lives together while keeping the community safe appeals to her.

“I’m not just locking them up – I’m making a difference,” she says in an interview on the United States Courts website ( “So I think that’s what I really love about this job. Because it’s so much more positive than negative.”

While there’s no typical day, White says she spends a lot of time trying to get her people what they need to become productive members of society: transportation, housing, even clothes.

White’s colleague Kenny Lawrence works in a rural district of eastern Missouri, and says he spends much more time on the road, visiting far-flung offenders over 18 counties that encompass 18,000 square miles. Still, the balancing-act routine is similar: “When the offender is on supervision you have to balance protection of the communities as well as helping the offender work through the issues they may be having, whether it be employment, education, family issues,” he says.

As federal employees, White and Lawrence work for the U.S. government. But most parole and probation officers work for state or local governments.

Juvenile probation: Another chance to change lives

Rodney Purdy, a juvenile probation officer for Cook County, which includes Chicago, manages about 30 young people who have been found delinquent by a judge. A typical juvenile probation term is a year or two; for a felony, it’s five years. Purdy navigates his way through the projects and among drug dealers and gangs, visiting kids like a teen mom who landed in court after a fight at school in which she hit a teacher. Often he’ll talk to the parents, too.

Purdy tries to forge a connection with the kids assigned to him, but he never forgets he’s there to uphold the law. Like other probation officers, Purdy makes sure the youths he supervises are following the judge’s orders, whether to do community service, or to attend anger management class or drug rehab. “I want to apply theories and practices of a social worker, but also they’ve got to know, hey, I’m an officer of the court, and I got to let this guy know I’m not playin’ with him,” he tells a reporter for WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio.

At the same time, Purdy has a unique opportunity to catch kids who are at a fork in the road, where they can decide whether or not to follow a life of crime. So on his own initiative and in his free time, he organizes a college tour, to show at-risk kids what they could do and who they could become if they stay in school and out of jail.

Roughly half his cases, he says, are “good kids” who made a stupid mistake, and he estimates that 40 percent more have fallen in with the wrong crowd.  But he even relishes the really tough cases, the ones who aren’t fazed by the threat of a prison sentence. “I want them to understand, there is value in their life. And somewhere, somehow someone musta told them that there wasn’t.”

Where the best wages are for probation/parole officers

In addition to field work, parole and probation officers do a fair amount of paperwork, although it’s no desk job. In May 2013, the mean annual wage for parole and probation officers across the U.S. was $52,910, the BLS reports; the highest wages tend to be found in urban areas. The top-paying states are California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania with the average annual salary ranging from $51,280 in Pennsylvania to $76,540 in California. The best-paying employers are general hospitals, where the average annual wage is $57,890.

A bachelor’s degree in social work, criminal justice, psychology or a related field is usually the required qualification for a parole or probation officer. A master’s degree in one of those fields can also help one advance along the career ladder, or help a candidate with a bachelor’s degree cross over from a different profession. And while there’s no degree in people savvy, that definitely comes in handy too.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics - Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics - Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists, May 2013 Wages