History of Probation and Parole

For more than 100 years, the accomplishments, struggles, and victories of the field of probation and parole are many. We've come a long way! A brief history of probation and parole are available. This information can be incorporated into speeches, brochures, or other public outreach activities throughout the year.

History of Probation »

Probation Historical Roots

John Augustus, a Boston cobbler, is credited as the "Father of Probation." In 1841 he persuaded the Boston Police Court to release an adult drunkard into his custody rather than sending him to prison -- the prevalent means of dealing with law violations at that time. His efforts at reforming his first charge were successful, and he soon convinced the court to release other offenders to his supervision. However, this first unofficial probation officer did not perform his altruistic work without controversy. His efforts actually were resisted by police, court clerks, and turnkeys who were paid only when offenders were incarcerated (Klein, 1997). 

In 1843, Augustus broadened his efforts to children when he took responsibility for two girls, ages eight and ten, and an 11-year-old boy, all of whom had been accused of stealing. By 1846, he had taken on the supervision of about 30 children ranging from nine to 16 years old (Binder, Geis, & Bruce, 1997). In his own words he describes his ongoing work with children before the court:

In 1847, I bailed nineteen boys, from seven to fifteen years of age, and in bailing them it was understood, and agreed by the court, that their cases should be continued from term to term for several months, as a season of probation; thus each month at the calling of the docket, I would appear in court, make my report, and thus the cases would pass on for five or six months. At the expiration of this term, twelve of the boys were brought into court at one time, and the scene formed a striking and highly pleasing contrast with their appearance when first arraigned. The judge expressed much pleasure as well as surprise, at their appearance, and remarked, that the object of the law had been accomplished, and expressed his cordial approval of my plan to save and reform. Seven of the number were too poor to pay a fine, although the court fixed the amount at ten cents each, and of course I paid it for them; the parents of the other boys were able to pay the cost, and thus the penalty of the law was answered. The sequel thus far shows, that not one of this number has proved false to the promises of reform they made while on probation. This incident proved conclusively, that this class of boys could be saved from crime and punishment, by the plan which I had marked out, and this was admitted by the judges in both courts.(John Augustus, 1852, p. 34).

By Augustus' (1852) own account, he bailed "eleven hundred persons, both male and female." He also recounted that he had secured the release by the courts of many children:

. . .of this number one hundred and sixteen were boys under sixteen years of age; eighty-seven were under the age of fourteen; twenty-seven were under twelve years, and four were only seven years old. Of this number only twelve were incorrigible,. . . I have always endeavored to send these persons to school, or some place of employment, and but two, to my knowledge, have stolen since I bailed them, and this shows that nine out of ten have behaved well. . . (pp. 96-97).

By 1869, the Massachusetts legislature required a state agent to be present if court actions might result in the placement of a child in a reformatory, thus providing a model for modern caseworkers. The agents were to search for other placement, protect the child's interests, investigate the case before trial, and supervise the plan for the child after disposition. Massachusetts passed the first probation statute in 1878 mandating an official State probation system with salaried probation officers (National Center for Juvenile Justice [NCJJ], 1991). Other states quickly followed suit (NCJJ, 1991):

  • by 1900, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Minnesota, and Illinois passed probation laws;
  • by 1910, 32 more states passed legislation establishing juvenile probation
  • by 1930, juvenile probation was legislated in every state except Wyoming

Today, probation is authorized in all states and is an integral part of the juvenile justice system. Many foreign nations also have adopted approaches based on the United States prototype.


Augustus, J. (1852). A report of the labors of John Augustus. Boston: Wright & Hasty, Printers. (Republished in 1984 by the American Probation and Parole Association, Lexington, KY.)

Binder, A., Geis, G., & Bruce, D. D. (1997). Juvenile delinquency: Historical, cultural and legal perspectives. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing, Co.

Klein, A. R. (1997). Alternative sentencing, intermediate sanctions and probation. Cincinnati, OH; Anderson Publishing Co.

National Center for Juvenile Justice. (1991). Desktop guide to good juvenile probation practice. Pittsburgh, PA: Author.

Read further to learn more about the history of probation:

History of Parole »

Parole Historical Roots

Excerpted from the first part of a two-part article titled, Parole and Prisoner Reentry in the United States, by Joan Petersilia, PH.D. Part one of this article appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Perspectives. The second part of this article appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Perspectives.

To read the entire two part article,
click on the links below:

Parole comes from the French word parole, referring to "word" as in giving one's word of honor or promise. It has come to mean an inmate's promise to conduct him or herself in a law-abiding manner and according to certain rules in exchange for release. In penal philosophy, parole is part of the general 19th-century trend in criminology from punishment to reformation. Chief credit for developing the early parole system is usually given to Alexander Maconochie, who was in charge of the English penal colony at Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia, and to Sir Walter Crofton, who directed Ireland's prisons (Cromwell and del Carmen 1999).

Maconochie criticized definite prison terms and developed a system of rewards for good conduct, labor and study. Through a classification procedure he called the mark system, prisoners could progress through stages of increasing responsibility and ultimately gain freedom. In 1840, he was given an opportunity to apply these principles as superintendent of the Norfolk Island penal settlement in the South Pacific. Under his direction, task accomplishment, not time served, was the criterion for release. Marks of commendation were given to prisoners who performed their tasks well, and they were released from the penal colony as they demonstrated willingness to accept society's rules. Returning to England in 1844 to campaign for penal reform, Maconochie tried to implement his reforms when he was appointed governor of the new Birmingham Prison in 1849. However, he was unable to institute his reforms there because he was dismissed from his position in 1851 on the grounds that his methods were too lenient (Clear and Cole 1997).

Walter Crofton attempted to implement Maconichie's mark system when he became the administrator of the Irish Prison System in 1854. Crofton felt that prison programs should be directed more toward reformation, and that "tickets-of-leave" should be awarded to prisoners who had shown definitive achievement and positive attitude change. After a period of strict imprisonment, Crofton began transferring offenders to "intermediate prisons" where they could accumulate marks based on work performance, behavior and educational improvement. Eventually they would be given tickets-of-leave and released on parole supervision. Parolees were required to submit monthly reports to the police, and a police inspector helped them find jobs and generally oversaw their activities. The concepts of intermediate prisons, assistance and supervision after release were Crofton's contributions to the modern system of parole (Clear and Cole 1997).

By 1865, American penal reformers were well aware of the reforms achieved in the European prison systems, particularly in the Irish system. At the Cincinnati meeting of the National Prison Association in 1870, a paper by Crofton was read, and specific references to the Irish system were incorporated into the Declaration of Principles, along with other such reforms as indeterminate sentencing and classification for release based on a mark system. Because of Crofton's experiment, many Americans referred to parole as the Irish system (Walker 1998).

Zebulon Brockway, a Michigan penologist, is given credit for implementing the first parole system in the U.S. He proposed a two-pronged strategy for managing prison populations and preparing inmates for release: indeterminate sentencing coupled with parole supervision. He was given a chance to put his proposal into practice in 1876 when he was appointed superintendent at a new youth reformatory, the Elmira Reformatory in New York. He instituted a system of indeterminacy and parole release, and is commonly credited as the father of both in the United States. His ideas reflected the tenor of the times - a belief that criminals could be reformed, and that every prisoner's treatment should be individualized.

On being admitted to Elmira, each inmate (males between the ages of sixteen and thirty) was placed in the second grade of classification. Six months of good conduct meant promotion to the first grade - misbehavior could result in being placed in the third grade, from which the inmate would have to work his way back up. Continued good behavior in the first grade resulted in release. Paroled inmates remained under the jurisdiction of authorities for an additional six months, during which the parolee was required to report on the first day of every month to his appointed volunteer guardian (from which parole officers evolved) and provide an account of his situation and conduct (Abadinsky 1997). Written reports became required and were submitted to the institute after being signed by the parolee's employer and guardian.

Indeterminate sentencing and parole spread rapidly through the United States. In 1907, New York became the first state to formally adopt all the components of a parole system: indeterminate sentences, a system for granting release, post-release supervision and specific criteria for parole violation. By 1927, only three states (Florida, Mississippi and Virginia) were without a parole system, and by 1942, all states and the federal government had such systems (Clear and Cole 1997).


Abadinsky, Howard. 1997. Probation and Parole. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Simon & Shuster.

Clear, Todd, and George Cole. 1997. American Corrections. Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth Publishing.

Cromwell, Paul F., and Rolando del Carmen. 1999. Community Based Corrections. Belmont, Ca.: West/Wadsworth.

Walker, Samuel. 1998. A History of American Criminal Justice. New York: Oxford University Press.