The possibility of redemption and reform, without the necessity of prison, has rested at the heart of the U.S. probation movement since its beginning.
In 1841, John Augustus, a 57-year-old Boston boot maker, persuaded a judge to release a drunkard into his custody. The man reappeared before the judge in three weeks, apparently a changed man. Augustus soon expanded his work.
He generally required his probationers to swear off alcohol — which he viewed as an “evil agent,” according to one biographer — and occasionally had them work in his boot shop and live in his home.
But Augustus grew unwelcome in some courtrooms. Some court officers accused him of coddling wrongdoers by substituting treatment for punishment.
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“Often when I attempted to enter the courtroom, I was rudely repulsed by the officers and told that I could not go in,” Augustus wrote in his memoirs.
Augustus was particular about whom he chose to help, according to a study of his life in the Federal Probation Journal.
“He carefully screened prospective candidates through interviews, checks of their background and social histories,” wrote Charles Lindner. “For the most part, the offenders he sponsored were low-risk, nonviolent criminals.”
Linder questioned whether Augustus could have imagined how his early work would grow into the probation system in place today.
“Today, probation stands as an integral part of the criminal justice system, with more offenders under supervision than either parole, or in prisons or jails,” Linder wrote.
One change in recent decades is that judges started putting more serious offenders on probation, said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association.
“People think probation is a slap on the wrist and meant for low-level, first-time offenders,” Wicklund said. “But it hasn’t been that way around the country for a long time.”