Minnesota Association of 
County Probation Officers 
The Roots of Probation

John Augustus, a Boston shoe 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.

Image of John Augustus -  http://www.nyc.gov/html/prob/html/about/history.shtml

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