The United States Probation Office

 


The first probation law in the United States was enacted by the Massachusetts legislature on April 26, 1878, but it was not until March 4, 1925, when the first statute providing for federal probation officers was signed by President Coolidge. For nearly a century, the federal courts had been using a form of probation without statutory authority, namely by the suspension of a term sentence during the defendant's good behavior. This practice, however, had been vigorously opposed by the Department of Justice. Finally, in 1915 , the Attorney General filed a petition with the Supreme Court to vacate an order suspending a sentence entered by District Judge John M. Killits, in the Northern District of Ohio, on the grounds the order was beyond the powers of the court. In an opinion for the unanimous court, on December 4, 1916, Chief Justice Edward D. White ruled that the federal courts had no inherent power to suspend a sentence indefinitely. While probation legislation was suggested as a remedy, until enactment of such a law, the federal courts were subsequently without power to suspend sentence or use any form of probation.

When the court decision came down, there were more than 2,000 federal prisoners free nationwide on suspensions, and all would have to be taken into custody because their suspensions were invalid. The problem was resolved by two presidential proclamations in 1917, granting amnesty and pardon to specified classes of persons then under suspended sentences.

Efforts to enact a probation law were fraught with difficulties that the proponents of probation never anticipated. It was difficult to obtain agreement on a nationwide plan. As far back as 1890, Attorneys General and their assistants expressed strong opposition not only to a suspended sentence but to probation as well. At the time of the Killits decision, several bills had been pending in the House Judiciary Committee. In fact, one bill which provided for suspended sentences and probation (but no probation officers) passed the House and Senate in 1917, but on the advice of the Attorney General, President Wilson allowed the bill to die by "pocket veto". Between 1909 and 1925, there had been 34 bills introduced, unsuccessfully, to establish a federal probation law.

One of the prime movers for a federal probation law was Charles L. Shute, who was active with the New York State Probation Commission and General Secretary of the National Probation Association. Many members of Congress were unfamiliar with the concept of probation and even some judges confused probation with parole when corresponding with Mr Chute. Judges were split in their opinions about probation in 1916. Some regarded it as a form of leniency, some favored it for juveniles only, while others favored suspending sentences. Three years later, in 1919, a survey of judges found more favorable disposition to probation but little need for salaried probation officers. In 1920, Mr. Chute succeeded in convincing the Attorney General to support a probation law. However, Congressmen Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, who was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and author of the 1919 Volstead (Prohibition) Act, was opposed to any legislation which would interfere with his Act. He and other prohibitionists believed judges would place violators of the probation law on probation and countered by introducing a bill providing for a prison sentence for every violation of probation.

Finally, Senator Royal S. Copeland of New York introduced S-1042, which provided for a probation law which removed some of the recurring objections of the Department of Justice, particularly the costs required to administer such a law. The bill limited one probation officer to each judge.

The act itself provided for a probation system in the United States Courts and finally gave the court the power to suspend the imposition or execution of a sentence and place the defendant upon probation for such period and upon such terms and conditions as it deemed best. It also allowed the judge to revoke or modify any condition of probation or change the period of probation, provided the period of probation, with any extension did not exceed five years. A fine, restitution or reparation could be made a condition of probation as well as the support of those for whom the probationer was legally responsible. The probation officer was to report to the court on the conduct of each probationer and was given the power to arrest a probationer without warrant. The court could discharge the probationer from further supervision or terminate the proceedings against him or extend the period of probation.

The act authorized the judge to appoint one or more persons to serve as probation officers without compensation and to appoint one probation officer with salary. A civil service competitive examination was required of probation officers to receive salaries. The judge was empowered to remove any probation officer serving in his court.

The entry level salary of a paid probation officer was $2400 a year and advanced to $3000 after 6 months. Applicants had to be high school graduates or have at least 14 credits for college entrance. If the applicant did not meet these requirements, but was otherwise qualified, he could take a non-competitive mental test. The experience requirements were at least one year in paid probation work or at least three years in paid systematic and organized social work with an established agency. The age requirement was 21 through 54 and retirement was age 70.

Enactment of the 1925 law did not bring probation officers into immediate existence. First, competitive examinations had to be held, which were not announced until August of 1926. A list of eligibles first became available in January of 1927, and the first salaried probation officer was appointed in April of 1927. By June of 1931, there were 62 salaried probation officers along with 11 clerks serving 54 districts.

Many courts at that time were using volunteers (at least 700); these included deputy marshals, narcotic agents, assistant U.S. Attorneys, court clerks, lawyers, and even relatives. Subsequently, the original probation law was amended in 1930 to provide for appointment of probation officers by the court rather than the Civil Service Commission, permit more than one salaried probation officer for each judge, and for the judge then to designate one as the chief probation officer. While appointments were made by the court, salaries were set by the Attorney General, who also provided for the necessary expenses of probation officers, including clerical services and travel. The revision to the Act also provided for supervision of federal parolees. It further gave the Attorney General authority to oversee the work of probation officers with access to all records, and to make recommendations to the Court concerning their work. It also authorized the Attorney General to collect information and statistics for annual publication. The Attorney General delegated these functions to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons.

In 1930, the Department of Justice announced appointment standards with the ideal age being between 30 to 45 and at least one year of paid experience with a high school diploma. However, since the Attorney general had no means of enforcing the qualifications, appointments were to a large extent of a political nature, even relatives of the judge. Among those appointed as probation officers in the early years were deputy clerks, prohibition agents, tax collectors, policemen, marshals, salesman, a streetcar conductor, a farmer, a prison guard and a retired vaudeville entertainer. In January of 1938, new standards were announced including a college degree and at least 2 years of full time experience in an accredited professional family or social casework agency, a maximum age of 53, a "pleasing personality and good reputation", and sufficient physical fitness to meet standards prescribed by the U.S. Public Health Service.

In 1930, Colonel Joel R. Moore was appointed to be the first national director of Probation. His first task included locating space for probation officers. For example, the officer in Mobile kept office hours between court sessions at a table for counsel in the court room, the Los Angeles probation officer held down the end of a table in the reception room of the marshal's quarters, and the officer for the Middle District of Pennsylvania had his office in his residence.

The first federal probation officer in New Jersey was Edgar Y. Dobbins, who was formally appointed in April of 1931. Prior to that, since 1929, Dobbins had been Deputy Clerk of the U.S. District Court in Camden and had also served as a non-appointed, volunteer probation officer. Dobbins noted that "Probation work started in the District of New Jersey when I was appointed a Deputy Clerk December 1928, officially appointed April14, 1931, when the order of the court was signed." Dobbins was formerly president of W.H. Dobbins & Company of Philadelphia and was known for his interest in civic and welfare work. He was a member of the Camden Rotary Club and a member of the State Executive Committee of the N.J. Sunday School Association. Probationers from the federal court in Trenton and Newark were being supervised by local county probation officers. In a 1929 letter to Dobbins, U.S. District Court Judge William Runyon (N.J.) wrote, "I hope in a very short time we shall be able to institute this system instead of continuing as heretofore to trespass upon the good will of various county officers".

In the December 1931 issue of Ye News Letter, the Federal Probation System's first national publication for probation officers, Col. Joel R. Moore, the first director of Federal Probation, reported on a day he spent with officer Dobbins in Camden.

"Found him in a well-equipped office in the Camden County Court House. Surprised that he has, at his own expense employed a temporary stenographer. Know that some of you have done the same. Am not advocating such a course. We should see that you are provided with such an assistant. But we do consider that Dobbins and others who are thus spending their own funds for the much needed stenographic assistance are showing unusual interest in their work."

Moore recalled an office visit of a "self-confident argumentative woman, ex-bootlegger" who presented Dobbins with a physician's certificate that she must have liquor in her house at all times for her heart trouble. However, she "came out second best in her argument with the probation officer".

Col. Moore reported that he accompanied Dobbins to a Rotary luncheon with more than a hundred businessman. Dobbins was apparently the chair of their charity relief committee. Moore discovered that Dobbins had been successful in finding employment for his probationers through his contacts at the Rotary Club. Moore also noted that the Essex County Probation Officers were helpful in offering assistance in supervising probationers in the northern area of the state, allowing Dobbins to concentrate on the middle and southern parts of the state.

In 1939, a bill to establish the Administrative Office of the Courts was approved by President Roosevelt. However, probation officers were excluded; the Department of Justice argued that the supervision of probationers and paroles was an executive function and should remain with the Department.

In October of 1939, U.S. District Judge John B. Avis (N.J.) wrote to Congressman Hatton Sumners, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee in response to a bill proposed for both qualification standards for probation officers and their appointment by the Attorney General.

"I am convinced from my study of the situation and frequent contact with probation officers, that fixed standards of qualifications are of minor importance. Training of the mind with fixed standards is not alone sufficient to create a good probation officer. He must have experience, sympathy, interest, proper temperament, be unselfish, willing to give more time to the work than the ordinary working hours, have a deep desire to serve his fellowman, and a practical knowledge and understanding of human nature". As to the appointments, Judge Avis opined "The complete cooperation between the courts and probation officers should not be disturbed .... I believe the system adopted in New Jersey has worked to the satisfaction of the court as well as the Bureau of Prisons"

The first Director of the Administrative Office, Henry P. Chandler, subsequently convinced Chief Justice Hughes that probation officers, who were appointed by the court and subject to their direction, were part of the judicial establishment. In 1940, the general supervision of the probation system came under the Administrative Office. In 1941, the Judicial Conference recommended definite qualifications for appointments: exemplary character, good health and vigor, an age at appointment between 25-45, a bachelor's degree, and no less than two years experience in personnel work for the welfare of others.

In 1934, the position of Chief Probation was established in New Jersey, and Dobbins was named to that post. Also another probation officer was authorized for North Jersey to assist with the 300 cases under federal supervision. Francis H. Walsh was appointed for Newark on November 1 , 1934 and was later joined by C. Alexander Rheiner in 1939. The Trenton vicinage was served by the appointment of Francis J. Slane who was appointed on January 1, 1937.

Probation officers have long been exposed to hazardous duties. In fact, Dobbins' son was shot and killed by a probationer who came to his house seeking Dobbins. In 1952, Officer Rheiner barely escaped with his life when a boiler exploded in an apartment while making a home visit in Jersey City. The mother of the probationer died and six were injured; Rheiner was rescued by the fire department while out on the ledge of the building. In1976, Congress recognized the nature of their duties and provided for hazardous duty status, including a mandatory retirement age.

The second chief probation officer, C. Alexander Rheiner, was selected and appointed in January of 1954, upon Dobbins' retirement. Rheiner had been deputy chief in Newark prior to that time.

The following Chief Probation Officers have served the district of New Jersey: Edgar Y. Dobbins (September 9, 1934 to December 31, 1953); C. Alexander Rheiner (January 1, 1954 to June 30, 1971); Brayton B. Crist (July 1, 1971 to January 31, 1978); Emil P. Mozolak (February 1, 1978 to August 31, 1979); John L. Costley Jr. (September 1, 1979 to March 31, 1985); David A. Mason (April 1, 1985 to March 31, 1995); William P. Carroll (April 1, 1995 to January 2, 2000); Joseph J. Napurano (January 3, 2000 - present).

The investigation and supervision functions of the federal probation system in the early years were substantially the same as today. While presentence reports were prepared for judges for sentencing, they were perfunctory in many instances, some consisting of a single paragraph based on limited knowledge and even on biases and hunches. In 1930, a four page printed presentence worksheet served as the basis for a report to the court. It contained a limited space under such headings as: Complaint, Statement of Defendants and Others, Physical Condition, Mental Condition, Personal and Family History, Habits, Associates and Spare Time Activities, Employment History, Home and Neighborhood Conditions, Religious and Social Affiliations, Social Agencies, Institutions, and Individuals Interested, Analytical Summary Proposed Plan. These were outline headings generally followed by state juvenile and adults courts at the time and continued to be those recommended for federal probation officers to use.

Federal probation officers supervised only probationers until 1930, when the Parole Act of 1910 was amended to give them responsibility for supervision of parolees. In 1946, the Federal Probation System began supervising military parolees and, in 1947, began to supervise select juveniles whose prosecutions were deferred.

In November of 1987, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 took effect, and it changed criminal sentencing in the federal courts significantly. Parole was abolished and replaced with a term of supervised release after prison sentences, with the court retaining jurisdiction. The U.S. Sentencing Commission was established to develop sentencing guidelines for judges to follow in all felony and Class A misdemeanor sentences. The presentence report was modified to incorporate the probation officers' recommendation for application of the guidelines to the offense and responses to objections and comments by both defense and prosecution counsel.

In 1992, the supervision of offenders was revisited. The Probation and Pretrial Division (now Office of Probation and Pretrial Services) of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts introduced "enhanced supervision" nationwide to focus probation officers on event-driven activities in the area of risk control, enforcing court conditions, and correctional treatment.

The number of offenders under supervision nationally and, in New Jersey, began to increase in the 1970s and more officers and space were required. All three court locations continued to be served by resident probation offices. To address increasing staff in the Newark office and the construction of casinos, in the mid -1970s, branch offices were opened in commercially- leased space in Paterson and in the Atlantic City Post Office. The Paterson office is now located in the Robert Roe Federal Building in Paterson and the Atlantic City office has since relocated to commercially- leased space in neighboring Northfield. In 1996, another branch office was opened in Tinton Falls to address the population growth in Monmouth and northern Ocean counties. In 1998, due to space limitations, the supervision units of the Newark division relocated out of the Newark Courthouse to occupy the sixth floor of the Veteran's Administration Building, about a mile away from the courthouse.

At the present time, there are 160 members of the probation staff, with 97 officers in seven office locations. The Chief is supported by three deputy chiefs and 12 supervisors.