Non-Custodial Sentencing: The Probation Officer
Non-custodial sentencing: The Probation Officer
Sequel to the commencement of full implementation of the non-custodial policy in Nigeria, I deemed it fit to reel out the qualities and functions of the probation officer. Most of the officers posted to the non-custodial service of the Nigerian Correctional Service are likely to be probation officer. It is only pertinent that they know some of the qualities and mandates expected from them.

A probation officer is someone who works with and monitors offenders who are sentenced on probation in lieu of custodial sentence to ensure they carry out their sentences to the latter and also ensure they do not commit new crimes. The minimum requirement to become a probation officer is a Bachelor’s Degree in criminal justice, criminology, social work, psychology, guidance/counseling, sociology or a related discipline. Many probation officers earn a Master’s Degree in the disciplines mentioned above. They work to ensure that the offender is not a danger to the community and to help in their rehabilitation. They write reports that detail each offender’s treatment plans and their progress since they were put on probation. Most probation officers work with either adults or juveniles. Only in small, mostly rural, jurisdictions do probation officers counsel both adults and juveniles. They carry through with anything the court assigns to them, the most common being to supervise offenders and to investigate the offender’s history (personal and criminal) prior to sentencing. The investigation carried out by the probation officer before sentencing is called Pre-Sentencing Report (PSR). The report is important as it provides recommendations to the court on whether the offender is qualified for a non-custodial sentence, and which types of the sanctions he or she should be sentenced to. The probation officer, in preparing the PSR, carries out an initial assessment in which he/she identifies the needs and risk assessment of the offender. After which he/she makes a supervision plan in which he/she points out how the needs and risks of the offender will be met and minimized respectively. Next is the interventions which include the treatment process such as counseling, social learning programme, referral to other agencies, mentoring, drug rehabilitation etc. The number of cases a probation officer handles at one time depends on the needs of offenders and the risks associated with each individual. Higher risk offenders usually command more of the officer’s time and resources.

Probation officers work with criminal offenders, some of whom may be dangerous. While supervising offenders, they may interact with others, such as family members and friends of their clients, who may be upset or difficult to work with. Workers may be assigned to fieldwork in high-crime areas or in institutions where there is a risk of violence or communicable disease. The job of a probation officer involves long and irregular hours. There are times when they must track an offender who has fled and bring him/her back to the system. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of the work are enormous. Probation officers must meet many court-imposed deadlines, which contributes to heavy workloads and extensive paperwork. Many officers travel to do home and employment checks and property searches, especially in rural areas. Because of the hostile environments probation officers may encounter, some must carry a firearm or other weapon for protection. Although the high stress levels can make the job difficult at times, this work also can be rewarding. Many officers and specialists receive personal satisfaction from counseling members of their community and helping them become productive citizens. The Probation officer’s job is made more efficient with technological advancements—such as improved tests for screening drug use, electronic devices to monitor clients, and kiosks that allow clients to check in remotely—help probation officers supervise and counsel offenders.

Probation officers are expected to produce reports on a regular basis. It is imperative that the information they communicate is clear and concise. These officers also have to interact with many different personality types and with people who have been previously convicted of crimes. This calls for the capacity to mentor, counsel, and guide people toward a second chance. The role also involves frequent communication with offenders’ friends and family; as well as judges, correctional officers, and treatment specialists. Caseloads in most jurisdictions are heavy and demand an ability to manage time and remain organized. Identifying and assessing problems and deciding how to handle them are integral parts of the job. The quintessential probation officer is rational, logical, and cannot be pushed around; but is also understanding and empathetic. In other words, those who succeed in the field manage to strike a balance between toughness and sensitivity. Above all, a probation officer must be honest, motivated and incorrigible.

It is no longer news that we are facing one of the toughest times in the history of the world brought about by the novel COVID-19 pandemic. You are enjoined to maintain good hygiene, social distancing and above all, pray for humanity.

DSC Ugwuoke, Kelvin Abuchi
Jos Custodial Centre
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