John Augustus (1785 – June 21, 1859) was a Boston boot maker who is called the "Father of Probation" in the United States because of his pioneering efforts to campaign for more lenient sentences for convicted criminals based on their backgrounds. Augustus' efforts are credited with the establishment of the Presentence Investigation.
- "Time has not been spent in getting out books, but in getting persons out of jail."
Traces of probation date back to 437 B.C. However courts in the 1800s had been giving out sentences regardless of background of the defendant. Augustus coined the word "probation" which he derived from the Latin word "probare" which means "to prove, to test". Augustus was an active member of the Washington Total Abstinence Society. Augustus was concerned that poor drunks and offenders of petty crimes were receiving mandatory sentences that were not warranted by their backgrounds. He felt that first time offenders could best be rehabilitated if spared the crime hardening experience of a prison sentence.
In 1841, Augustus approached the Boston, Massachusetts police court and persuaded them to let a “common drunkard” be left in his care instead of going to prison. The conditions were that a fine needed to be paid and the offender must return before the court in three weeks, the fine was levied at one cent plus court costs, which came to the total of $3.76. After three weeks of being in Augustus' care, in which Augustus found him a job and made him sign a pledge to stop drinking, the offender and Augustus returned to astonish the court. The offender was completely sober and his appearance and demeanor had drastically improved.
The court allowed Augustus to take more and more offenders into his custody. Of course he didn't try to take all the cases, he would select prospective probationers based on age, character and the people places and things apt to influence them to make his decision. His practice assumed that most offenders are not dangerous and will respond well to treatment. In 1843 Augustus turned his attention toward helping children. He took three children into his care, all accused of stealing. The children included two girls ages eight and ten, and an eleven year-old boy. Three years later this number had grown to thirty children ranging nine to sixteen years old. The process was such that the children's cases were continued for period of several months as a term of probation. At the calling of the docket each month, Augustus would appear to make his report and the cases would pass on for 5–6 months. Then, at the end of the term he would appear with some of the children, and as with his first success their appearance had drastically improved from the time of their arraignment. With this and the paying of a ten cent fine per person, the judge would declare that the object of the law was accomplished, thanks to Augustus' plan to save and reform.
Augustus' success rate could rival and possibly surpass the success rate of any rehabilitation program available to today. His work brought him the devotion and aid of many Boston philanthropists and organizations. Augustus' success started him on an 18 year run as the first probation officer ever. At his death, it was noted that of the 2,000 people he helped only four proved unworthy (for which he forfeited bail).
In 1878, Massachusetts authorized the Mayor of Boston to hire a probation officer based upon the work of John Augustus. Two years later, every city in Massachusetts was using a probation officer and by 1890, every court in the state had one. The Massachusetts Probation Service is the direct result of his work.
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- New York Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives - History of Probation: Meet John Augustus
- New York City Department of Probation - Brief History of Probation