Ask people why they do the job they do, and they will often rummage lengthily for an answer. Ask Kelly Grice, however, as I just have, and the response is clear and immediate. "I'm actually really attached to this job," she says. "It's the kind of job that, at the end of the week, as hectic as it will always be, I'll have that sense of having actually achieved something. I've done something that has had an impact on someone, or has made a meaningful contribution in some way."
Though firmly made, this something of an understatement. By working with offenders to help them stop offending, probation officers are actually required to transform people's lives. Indeed it would be hard for them not to. At the end of one of Grice's weeks, her advice to a court might have sent somebody to prison – or kept them free to find another victim. Surely there are very few jobs where the impact of being wrong is greater, and yet the odds of always being right are so vanishingly slim? At times, being a probation officer must feel like working for the National Scapegoat Service.
"Our job is strange in that when it goes right, nothing happens," Grice agrees, as we face each other in a meeting room at Cannock magistrates court, north of Birmingham, which she is visiting today. "But when it goes wrong," she adds. "Then it's a big media situation." On such rare occasions, with all the oversight and teamwork that surrounds the job, it would be almost impossible for one person to be held solely responsible. Yet probation officers must still learn to live with that pressure. No wonder Grice expects me to be surprised that she enjoys being one so much.
"It is a thankless job, to a certain extent," she says, her hands composed neatly on the tabletop. "You don't do this for the money. You don't do it because it's a popular job and people will be impressed at parties. It's a job that you do because you enjoy having that contribution, I think." It is also, let none of us forget, a job that does need doing, even if many people would prefer to see offenders suffer rather than redeem themselves.
"There has to be an alternative to prison," Grice says. "You can't just lock everybody up." Yet, having agreed to let some criminals out, the idea does persists that probation officers, bewitched by the offenders' charm, and their own ideals, are soft on them. And, as a young woman with a psychology degree who talks placidly about "challenges" and "making choices", Grice would no doubt slot neatly into the stereotype.
Yet, as she points out, helping released prisoners to build better lives is an essential part of protecting people from them. "A lot of the general public want people removed from the community," she says. "But making people feel not wanted is only going to escalate their risk. If they've got a job and good accommodation, then you've given them something that they don't want to lose … The public perception is that we're there to hold offenders' hands and look after them and make sure they get whatever they want, but it's not like that."
And certainly the offenders themselves do not see it that way. "When they don't want to engage at all, they will generally walk through the door and say, 'You can't make me do anything'. I hear that a lot," Grice says, without altering her even tone. "And I always reply to them, 'No, you're right. I can't make you talk to me about anything.' What I suggest to them is that if they don't want to engage in that order, then the court can sentence them to something that might be more appropriate. But what I ask of them is that if they make the choice to come to the office, they make the choice to talk and do some work." Co-operate or go to prison, then, is still the message. You just have to deliver it correctly.
Even so, Grice's 30-minute sessions do sound more like therapy than punishment. And indeed she does refer some offenders to addiction counselling and anger-management programmes. But, as she takes great pains to emphasise, the differences between a shrink and a probation officer are very clear. Her first responsibility, for instance, as she says many times, is to the public, not the offender. (And throughout our time together, there is no apologetic talk of criminals being "just like you and me". Although no doubt many are.)
Nor are Grice's conversations with offenders entirely confidential. She usually meets them alone, and would never pass on personal matters to friends or family, but she is obliged to tell social services if she thinks children may be at risk, and must also report any new offences she hears about. "I had a recent case where threats were made by an offender towards someone else, and that got passed on to the police," she says, by way of example. "It made me very unpopular with the offender, and I had to deal with that when he came in. But it's amazing how you can get someone turning up being very threatening and aggressive, and yet I think that guy actually left and thanked me. It took a while, but a lot of times it is about letting them talk through what it is they're angry about."
Does she not feel nervous going into those sorts of meetings? "I used to," she says, after a moment's thought. "Not so much now, because when I've been confronted with situations like that, I've always managed to calm them down. If I think they're not going to calm down, then I will just ask them to leave." Besides, she points out, an offender will be told when he comes in (and 90% are "he") that she is going to say things that will challenge him. "So they're aware that that is part of my role and what I'm there to do," she says.
The point, which is never hidden, is to convince criminals to change their ways – which ultimately only they can choose to do. "What we are the experts in," says Grice, "is getting them to understand the triggers and patterns to their offending, motivating them in the first place to set themselves the goals that they want to meet, to get them to address their risk, and buy into that … A big part of what I feel my work is, is getting them to recognise their need to change."
Naturally, this is not a challenge to attempt with common sense alone. So, despite having her psychology degree, and a long-standing interest in criminology, Grice still had to complete another degree, and an NVQ level 3, in community and criminal justice, as well as a diploma in probation studies, before she qualified as a probation officer five years ago. Her studies took two years, interwoven with her trainee work, and were utterly exhausting. But if you were going to do what she does every day, you'd want to be prepared too.
"I'll always be working with the risky people," she explains. "As a probation officer, that is the majority of my caseload: violent people, sexual offenders, and so on." So, perhaps this Monday morning, she might have a large and violent murderer with an anger problem coming to join her in a small room while she tells him things he doesn't want to hear? And she's relaxed about that, is she? "You're always cautious of the risks," she says. "If it's someone that serious, then I would most likely make a decision to get the police risk assessor in there with me. And we don't take anything into the interview room that could be thrown. No hot drinks, or anything like that." I nod, though I would find this of little comfort.
Despite doing her best to influence such people for the better, it is also important for Grice to accept that her best will often not be good enough. "Sometimes you can have an offender that won't work well, say, with a female officer," she says, "or won't work well with a younger officer … We can have a very difficult time with male domestic violence offenders who are very controlling." Yet when I present her with the wearily familiar story of the drug addict, most often, who repeatedly reoffends, she insists there can still be grounds for optimism – or at least no grounds for giving up. "Without probation intervention," she says patiently, "they may have been back quicker. The fact they didn't offend for a year, that's a year's less victims. I would see that as still worthwhile."
And in some wonderful cases, of course, even repeat offenders do start to see things differently. "I have somebody on my caseload at the moment who has kind of made a career out of being a criminal," she says, suddenly more animated. "They've been in and out of prison for very many years, because of drug addiction. But this person is now absolutely thriving."
She pauses to consider whether she is confident about her next comment. Then she decides she is. "And I do think they won't come back again. They've found their reason to change," she says.
CVPay Between £28,185 and £35,727 as a band-four probation officer.
Hours "You work to demand, really. If something needs doing then you stay until that's done. At times, I've been at work until 8pm or 9pm most nights for a few weeks. Working through lunch seems to happen more often than it should."
Work/life balance "You have to be very disciplined. Otherwise, and I've seen it with a lot of officers, you're getting in at 8am and home at 8pm, and you don't have much left for the home side. It can be really hard."
Best thing "Seeing people making positive changes in their lives, and getting the sense that you are helping to minimise the number of other victims of really horrific offences."
Worst thing "You have to sit and read victim statements, and they do impact on you. It can be really, really difficult when it's children. But you do have to be mindful of what an offender does."
Overtime For lunch, 'I got called out to an emergency meeting at a hostel yesterday morning, so I picked up a tuna sandwich in a garage on the way.' If Kelly was not a probation officer, 'I would like to work with animals. I couldn't be a vet; I couldn't put them to sleep. But I always say if I won the lottery, I'd open an animal sanctuary.' The biggest mythabout probation officers is 'that we are there for the offender above the public. That's the one I get – they think I'm promoting the rights of someone who has done some really horrific things.'
Working with convicted criminals, which is what a probation officer does, is challenging work. The officers meet periodically with offenders on probation to ensure that they are complying with court-mandated orders and not committing new crimes. Despite the challenges, there are some noteworthy benefits, including decent pay. The median 2010 annual pay for probation officers and correctional treatment specialists was $47,200, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Probation officers play an important role in society and in the law enforcement process. Helping offenders assimilate back into society not only benefits the offender, but the community as well. During the initial probation meetings, the officer helps the offender set goals, including those related to community involvement and work. The officer plays a vital role in helping individuals rehabilitate from a criminal conviction to become a productive, law-abiding citizen.
Stability and Benefits
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 18 percent growth rate for parole officer positions between 2010 to 2020. Because probation officers are government employees, their pay is based on the government's General Schedule. The General Schedule designates pay based on salary grade levels assigned to each position, which ensures fair compensation standards. Government benefits are also typically solid and commonly include paid vacations, sick leave, pension, health, dental, and life insurance plans.
Some probation officers go out into the streets to investigate whether offenders are violating probation by using drugs or carrying weapons. Federal probation officers and some in local jurisdictions are even allowed to carry guns because of their work with drug dealers and gangs. Sometimes, officers even collaborate with police officers to make arrests if offenders break the law or fail to comply with court mandates. Despite the risks, people who prefer an intense, high-adrenaline career may find probation work exciting.
Probation officers perform a variety of activities in the course of their jobs. They meet with family members, friends and others associated with the offender to make probation recommendations. They often go to court to offer recommendations to the judge or to offer testimony when offenders violate probation. Along with meeting regularly with offenders and discussing their progress toward goals, officers build relationships with community programs to help offenders get involved in positive pursuits. Drug-related criminals, for instance, are often required to participate in support meetings or outpatient programs.
2016 Salary Information for Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists earned a median annual salary of $50,160 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, probation officers and correctional treatment specialists earned a 25th percentile salary of $39,530, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $67,420, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 91,300 people were employed in the U.S. as probation officers and correctional treatment specialists.
About the Author
Neil Kokemuller has been an active business, finance and education writer and content media website developer since 2007. He has been a college marketing professor since 2004. Kokemuller has additional professional experience in marketing, retail and small business. He holds a Master of Business Administration from Iowa State University.
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