Historically, probation does not involve incarceration, making it a front-end solution to address the overcrowding problem in U.S. prisons and jails. While the immediate goal of any probation program is rehabilitation—in reality, it is more a necessity than an instrument. As a result, other programs have been developed under the umbrella of community corrections that utilize elements of conditional release resulting in the expansion of probation-type programs.
Probation developed as a result of the efforts of philanthropist, John Augustus, to rehabilitate convicted offenders, although references to similar practices exist as early as 437-422 BC. It was favored because it allowed judicial authorities a great deal of discretion when imposing sentences, thereby providing the opportunity to tailor sentences to a particular offender, in theory allowing for the greatest possibility of rehabilitation. While sentences of probation vary widely across and within jurisdictions, the maximum length of time that one can be under supervision is 5 years (60 months).
The functions of probation are difficult to state definitively. It is known that at its inception, John Augustus’ goal was behavioral reform. This reflects the sentencing goal of rehabilitation. Fundamentally, it is believed that by allowing the offender to remain in the community, the system is providing a second chance. Further, support and guidance from probation officers may achieve the aim of guiding the offender towards a law-abiding existence.
Given that probation is no longer limited to first-time, non-violent offenders who pose minimal risk to the community, the reality is significantly different. Coupled with low confidence in the effectiveness of rehabilitative success and a burgeoning offender population, actual practices tend to be dictated by conflicting goals on both an individual and administrative level. In an aggressive bid to prevent jail or prison overcrowding, several alternatives to incarceration have developed. Some such programs enable offenders traditionally incarcerated to be released into the community, thereby forcing a shift in focus from rehabilitation to control and supervision.