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John Augustus


John Augustus with his reformatory motives and actions changed the meaning of traditional probation and hence came to be known as the father of modern probation. Probation as such was not an absent part of court proceeding even before his days. In fact the origin of probation is traced back to the middle ages of English criminal law. Punishments like flogging, branding, mutilation and even execution not befitting the nature of the crime were meted out to adults and children. Many minor offences were also punishable by death. A class of people burdened by the nature of the judicial system slowly began to prompt measures to be taken against the inhumanity of punishments. Though the methods in themselves were not free from corruption, it gave a little reprieve to the criminals who could have another chance with life. Methods such as judicial amnesty, asylum, renunciation and clergy benefit offered a measure of protection from harsh and dreaded punishments. A practice called ‘binding over for good behavior’ was a provisional respite where offenders could secure pardon or lesser sentence. Meanwhile in the United States, systems were being developed to help offenders to have a second chance. Good aberrance where the offender had to pay a collateral fee for good behavior, filing, in cases where immediate sentencing wasn’t necessary etc. was practiced. These were all forms of traditional probation and like precursors to modern probation.

John Augustus the birth of probation


Modern probation was brought about by the efforts of one man John Augustus born in 1785, in Woburn, Massachusetts. He became a permanent citizen of Boston somewhere around 1829. He moved to Lexington at the age of 21 and became a shoemaker slowly starting his own business. He was very successful in the field of shoe making, and prospered in it. He was also a member of the Washington Total Abstinence Society. The members of this society were teetotalers and believed that people who got into the habit of drinking were not above correction. They believed that such people could be rehabilitated and brought back with kindness, understanding and persuasion rather than with capital punishment. It could be his affiliation with this society which led him to go to the Boston courts and see the plight of the citizens. He noticed that many petty criminals and poor drunkards were being meted out unfair and harsh punishments not befitting the crime and the background of the offender. He became worried about those first time offenders who would have to face the harsh environs of a prison, when there crime did not justify it, not even allowing them a chance to reform. He feared that such a treatment of petty crimes and their exposure to prison may even haredn them into hardcore criminals if they were not allowed rehabilitation.

            In one such court proceeding that John Augustus attended in the year 1841, he witnessed the sentencing of a person who was incarcerated for public intoxication. The offender begged the court for freedom in exchange for giving up alcohol. Augustus who was watching the proceedings was reportedly moved and believed that this man could probably be rehabilitated. So he petitioned the court to release him under his supervision for a period of three weeks. The court ordered the man to appear in court after three weeks for sentencing. Augustus took the drunkard home and found a job for him. Three weeks later, the man appeared in court completely changed in body and mind. He had signed a pledge with Augustus, promising that he would stay out of trouble and would stop drinking alcohol. This dramatic change in the offender was indeed astonishing for the judge and the judge believed the sincerity of the change in the man. So instead of sending him to the House of Correction for incarceration for 30 days, the man was imposed a fine 1 cent and $3.76 as court fee. This was the first case of modern probation.

Augustus’s efforts and the fruit of his labor

            It was the beginning of the efforts by John Augustus to bail out and help hundreds of petty offenders. He visited the court houses of Boson regularly, bailing out, acted as counsel to some offenders, found a home for some juveniles who were caught stealing, etc. but was always careful to take a background check of the offender like his character and age. This became a daily habit for him. He also helped children in the age group of 9 to 18, about 30 of them and took them under his care. Since he was successful in his business he could leave his work around 1846 and continued in his efforts of rehabilitation. In an account of his efforts he wrote that he had bailed approximately 1100 men and women, out of which 116 were young boys under the age of 16, 87 under 14 years of age, 27 under 12 years of age and 4 children who were just 7 years old. Out of these there were 12 who were incurable. He did try sending them to schools or found work for them but out of these at least 2 of them stole after bailing. He said that this showed that nine out of ten behaved well (Augustus, 1852).

            His efforts did not go unnoticed and also did not go unhindered. As police and other officers could receive payment of about a dollar if the case in which they had testified, the criminal was convicted, he had conflict with the some police and court officials. It was reported that in cases where they suspected Augustus would take interest some officers would wait outside the courtroom till Augustus was inside. As soon as he came out they would hurry their cases before the judge, earn a conviction and collect their fees. As he continued in his efforts, Augustus started many practices which are still in effect today. He made sure that he did a thorough investigation of the person before he decides to intervene on his behalf. He kept complete and careful records of the offenders he redeemed during their probation under him so that at the time of appearing in court for sentencing he could present it before the judges. His methods were so effective and influential that the court judges would often hear his recommendations and act on them.

Probation today

            Today it is difficult to imagine that modern probation was based on a simple idea by a single man who put in his efforts and his money to rehabilitate those he sensed could be corrected and shown a path to a better future. Towards the end of 1999, an estimated 3.7 million people were reported to be on probation. What Augustus began was reformation for petty criminals, drunks and minor offenders, however; today according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics about 51% of the offenders out on probation have been convicted of felonies. The success that Augustus had with probation seems to be a far cry now, with one out five convicted of a violent crime are out on probation (Campbell, 2001). There is huge dissatisfaction today with the turn probation has taken. Probation departments across the country and the world are trying to reconnect to the spirit of early probation started by Augustus. Efforts are being taken across the criminal justice system as courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys and police try to address problems within the system. One method adopted by the system is to reduce the huge amount of its operations to a more manageable scale. Where there are large centralized court systems, small community courts are being created that focus on crimes on the lower level like intoxication, prostitution and theft. These problem solving efforts are being termed as community justice. A lot of probation practices are indirectly linked to major theories of offending and are based more on tradition, flawed assumptions and correctional philosophy (Cohn, 2002). Most of the community based programs have the goal of supervising offenders in such a manner that they desist from committing criminal acts again. ISP (Intensive supervision provision) is one such program in which it is required that there be a weekly contact between the probation officer and the client, regular alcohol and drug testing, monitoring curfew limits etc. Where about 300 clients were supervised by probation officers making it difficult to keep track, in the ISP system about 30-40 clients are assigned to an officer. This works psychologically too on the criminal as they have the fear of being constantly monitored, though the level of monitoring may not have a great influence on how a criminal behaves. Research also shows that a lot of people reduce criminal activities to a great extent, once they are assigned to probation.


As our judicial system copes with the number of offenders lining its prison corridors, it is become essential to make sure that probation is not granted to every person who promises to lead a good life. With the advance in technology and the ease of access to weapons it is becoming increasingly difficult to control crime and criminals. People who can be corrected and adjusted in society need to be analyzed the way John Augustus did in his early practice of helping offenders. Though it was more than a century ago, the principles he used are still practicable and should be modified and integrated into our judicial system.



Augustus J. (1852). A report of the labors of John Augustus. Boston: Wright & Hasty, Printers.

(Republiched in 1984 by the American probation and parole association, Lexington, KY. 96-97.

Campbell R., Wolf R.V. (2001). Problem solving probation. An examination of four

community-based experiments. Centre for court innovation. A public/private partnership    with the New York State unified court system. 1-2

Cohn, Alvin W. (2002). What works in corrections? Federal Probation66: 4-7



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