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Probation Systems in the United States and California

By: the U.S. Department of Justice

Probation in the United States is administered by hundreds of independent agencies operating under different state laws and following different philosophies. Over half of the 1,920 agencies that administer adult probation services are operated at the state level (26 states), and the rest are administered by combination of state/county and or county or municipal agencies. Texas, for example, has over 100 independent, local district probation agencies that handle adult probation cases.
In general, probation services in the United States are organized into five administrative models:

  • Juvenile. Over half of all juvenile probation services (2,120 agencies) are administered at the local level or by a combination of local and state agencies, and the rest are administered solely by state agencies (16 states). In all cases, the administration of juvenile probation is separate from adult probation services.
  • Municipal/County. Probation units are directed by the trial courts following state law and guidelines and are operated and funded by local governments. (This administrative model operates only in California and Washington D.C.).
  • State. A state-level executive agency administers a central probation and/or a combined probation and parole system that provides services throughout the state. (New Mexico for example, has a state-administered agency that provides both parole and probation services).
  • State combined. In this model programs are administered locally but funded at the state level. (The state of Pennsylvania for example, provides funds to county probation departments through a grant-in-aid program).
  • Federal. Probation is administered as an arm of the federal courts.

The organizational structure of probation in California in which the trial courts direct the activities of local probation units is unusual. The only other jurisdiction in which adult probation is the sole responsibility of local government is Washington D.C. California is also the only state that does not serve as the primary funding source for local probation, leaving this responsibility to local county governments. (Federal and state grants have been utilized increasingly by local probation departments but they do not provide a continuous funding stream).

National Trends in Probation Supervision

There are approximately 72,000 probation and parole officers across the United States involved in direct the supervision of adult offenders:

  • 29,974 officers supervise probation offenders,
  • 31,209 officers supervise a combination of parole and probation offenders, and
  • 10,883 officers supervise only parole offenders.

According to the American Parole and Probation Association, the adult probation population grew from 2,670,234 in 1990 to 3,932,751 offenders in 2001, an increase of 32.3 percent. Fifty-three percent of all probationers were convicted of a felony, 45 percent of a misdemeanor, and one percent of other infractions. Twenty-five percent were placed on probation for a drug violation, and 18 percent for driving while intoxicated.

Four states experienced an increase of ten percent or more in their probation populations in 2001, led by Maine (15 percent), Colorado, Kentucky, and Virginia (12 percent each). California’s adult probation population has remained relatively stable over the last ten years (about 300,000 offenders). In contrast, the adult probation population has decreased in 17 states, led by Nevada (14 percent decrease). Idaho has the highest rate of probationers per 100,000 residents (3,747), while New Hampshire has the lowest (9,385).

While there is no official tabulation of the number of probation officers who supervise juvenile offenders, the National Center for Juvenile Justice is sometimes able to provide information on the number of probation personnel involved in juvenile supervision. Most states do not consistently collect this information, and those that do, do not distinguish between supervising and administration personnel.

Probation departments across the country suffer from declining resources in the face of increasing service demands. They generally receive less than ten percent of state and local government funding for corrections. Contrasted to appropriations for prisons, probation funding has been on the decline for 30 years.

Probation in California

Probation departments in California counties currently serve an estimated 548,000 adult and juvenile probationers; 38 percent are juveniles and 62 percent are adults. Next to Texas, California’s probation population is the largest of any state in the nation.
California experienced a significant change in the probation population during the years 1991 to 2000, with the total adult population increasing by approximately seven percent. The number of juveniles on probation also increased during the past decade, from 172,000 in 1990 to 210,000 in 2000. The adult probation population has become much more violent, as measured by felony offenses. More severe sentencing standards are one reason for this increase. The number of adult probationers sentenced for a felony offense nearly doubled from 1990 to 2000, from 130,000 to 245,000 offenders (see Chart 9). During this time period, the number of adults who were sentenced to probation for misdemeanor offenses decreased by approximately 46 percent.

The number of probation officers supervising adult and juvenile offenders in California’s 58 counties increased from 6,387 in 1991 to 7,781 in 2000. The number of other local probation department employees (which includes administrative, teaching, counseling, prosecution, and public defense) increased from 7,366 in 1991 to 8,341 in 2000. This is the only data on probation personnel collected by the Department of Justice. The data does not distinguish adult probation from juvenile probation. Based on 1996 CRB survey data, there were approximately 2,900 adult probation officers in California. That would make the overall supervision ratio of probation officers to adult offenders approximately 1-to-121.

While the Department of Justice does not collect data by which to determine the ratio of probation officers to juvenile probationers, it is possible to use 1996 CRB survey data to make a reasonable estimate. Based on this data, there were 2,289 juvenile probation officers supervising approximately 200,000 juveniles. That would make the supervision ratio of probation officers to juvenile offenders approximately 1-to-87.

The 1996 California Research Bureau survey (49 responding counties) found that approximately 2,898 county-level personnel were involved in the management of adult probation, and 2,289 personnel were involved in the management of juvenile probation (a total of 5,187 probation officers). In addition, approximately 1,369 probation officers and other professional staff supervised 40,601 adult alternative sanction probationers, for an overall total of 6,556 probation personnel (see Chart 10). The 1996 figure in Chart 10 below differs slightly from the CRB survey data because it also takes into consideration retires.

There are three primary approaches to adult probation in California, based on findings from the 1996 CRB survey. A recent study by the California Judicial Council found similar approaches, with alternative sanction programs more heavily utilized for juvenile supervision.

  • Alternative sanction programs require high-risk offenders to undergo intensive supervision, including frequent and unannounced contact by probation officers outside a jail environment. Other alternative sanction programs require low-risk offenders to pay restitution to victims and perform community service work.
  • Regular probation requires offenders to make periodic visits or attend scheduled meetings with probation officers to discuss work activities and living arrangements.
  • Banked probation places minimal or no requirements on the offender to visit or contact a probation officer.

Ratio of Probation Officers in California to Offenders on Probation

The 1996 California Research Bureau (CRB) study of probation services in California found that the higher the risk a probation offender posed, the more likely he or she would be closely supervised (See Chart 11).

According to the CRB study, about one half of all local adult probation staff were assigned to supervise less than ten percent of all adult offenders placed on probation. These were the highest risk offenders. Consequently, probation departments were unable to actively supervise all other court-assigned probationers. The practice used by most departments was to “bank” lower risk offenders in caseload files with no (in most cases) supervision.
Adult probation line staff and managers believe that workload standards are a better measurement of work activity than caseload ratios. Workload standards distinguish between the number of cases, contacts and other responsibilities required for each case, and job activities that are not related to case management.27 For example, probation officers are also responsible for conducting a variety of investigative reporting including pretrial and pre-sentence reports.

Alternative Probation Sanctions

The primary objective of alternative probation sanction programs is to monitor a probationer’s behavior in such a way as to minimize the risk to society that the probationer poses by not being incarcerated. The expectation is that the probationer’s behavior will be controlled enough to prevent the probationer from re-offending, due to the increased likelihood that any re-offense would be detected. Table 2 lists alternative sanction programs offered by probation departments in California.

The 1996 CRB survey of 49 county probation departments found that 40,601 adult probation offenders were sentenced to alternative sanction programs. Many offenders were required to participate in more than one sanction program. Chart 12 shows the relative use of alternative sanction programs in 1996 by county probation departments.


In 57 of California’s 58 counties, a single chief probation officer has oversight and supervisory responsibility for both the adult and juvenile services provided by the probation department. Only San Francisco City and County maintains separate adult and juvenile probation departments, each with its own chief probation officer. In the vast majority of counties, the Supervising Judge appoints the chief probation officer.

Probation departments are locally financed county agencies, and the chief probation officer is a county official who hires staff according to county procedures. There is considerable variation in policies, procedures, and facilities among probation departments in California. No single state governmental agency is responsible for collecting probation data, such as regular or specialized offender/caseload ratios or funding/supervision information.

The Board of Corrections (BOC) works in partnership with city and county officials to develop and maintain standards for the construction and operation of local jails and juvenile detention facilities, and for the employment and training of local corrections and probation personnel. The BOC also inspects local adult and juvenile detention facilities; disburses training funds; administers grant programs that respond to facility construction needs, juvenile crime and delinquency, and mentally ill offenders; and conducts special studies relative to the public safety of California’s communities. It does not have a specific focus on probation, however, and does not gather or keep probation-related data.

How is Probation Funded in California?

Local criminal justice officials contend that probation departments in California do not have adequate or stable funding sources to support the delivery of vital mandated services. Funding comes mainly from county general funds, a declining funding source. While there has been an increase in the amount of federal and state grant funding available for probation since 1996, the grants are time limited and will eventually expire.

According to a recent California Probation Task Force report, a survey of six probation departments found that the percentage of county general fund money in their probation budgets has decreased. Four of the largest probation departments in the state received county general funds of less than 50 percent of their total budget between 1996 and 2001. Many probation departments are augmenting county appropriations and grant funding with fees imposed on probationers. These fees often pay for counseling and victim-related services.When grant funding expires, probation fees may not make up for the loss of the revenues.

A historical perspective on the declining revenue streams for California probation departments can be traced to the late 1970s, with the passage of Proposition 13. At that time, adult probation resources were reduced to the bare minimum in many counties. Probation departments made dramatic cuts, greatly increasing caseloads. In the late 1990s, with federal and state funding increases, some probation departments created new and innovative services. The new funding sources (mostly one or multi-year grants) are mostly targeted for juvenile services, such as the state Juvenile Crime Enforcement and Accountability Challenge Grant Program (1996) and the state Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act (2000).

In 1996, the federal government established the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, with state block grants totaling $16.5 billion. In California, $164 million of this funding was set aside to support probation departments in the provision of 23 approved juvenile services. These include mental health assessment and counseling, life skills counseling, anger management, violence prevention, conflict resolution, aftercare services, and therapeutic day treatment. As a result, juvenile prevention and early intervention programs have become core services for many county probation departments. While local probation departments believe that the increased funding of juvenile supervision and rehabilitation programs has been beneficial, the shift in emphasis has meant that the limited and remaining staff and resources are insufficient to manage and supervise the adult probation population.