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John Augustus: The Father of The American Probation System

This is a biographical profile of John Augustus, a shoemaker who became the father of American probation.

“Time has not spent in getting out books, but getting persons out of jail.”

Those were the words of a Boston shoemaker, and, later, America’s (and the world’s) first probation officer, John Augustus. John Augustus was born in 1785, in Woburn, Massachusetts, located about 11 miles north of Boston.

On one hot day in the year 1841, a local Boston shoemaker named John Augustus convinced a local, police judge to have a “common drunkard” to stay with him, for a while, to sober up and be a productive member of society, which the man did, under Mr. Augustus’ watch. Also, during the drunkard’s, three-week stay with Mr. Augustus, we was able to find a job, and agreed to sign a pledge with Mr. Augustus, he wouldn’t get into any more trouble.

Mr. Augustus’ actions would spark an need – and demand – for a statewide, and finally, a national probation system.  What on Earth would possess Mr. Augustus to take in a complete stranger and help him turn his life around? The answer was his personal beliefs about the criminal justice system of this era.

Mr. Augustus was deeply upset that common criminals, who haven’t been in trouble before, were given the same harsh sentences like murderers, thieves, and people who committed other unsavory crimes.

These injustices led him to offer his hand, his time, and his house to those who have fallen by the wayside of the law. After he helped the first person, he would help changed the lives of almost 2,000 others, including young children.

In 1843, the shoemaker turned social reformer turned his attention to helping children turn their lives around. Just like the adult offenders, he would appear in court and decide who would he help on that day. He didn’t help every offender and only helped those who he felt could be rehabilitated.there, he would make his reports on his charges to the presiding judge, who would then decide if the offender has learned his or her lesson.

For 18 years, Mr. Augustus divided his time in this trade with appearing in court, to save as many people as he could. He was Boston’s first, unofficial probation officer, and his work gained attention from many people, including wealthy charity givers, who donated money to help his cause.

However, on June 21, 1859, his goodwill stopped. On that day, America’s (and the world’s) first, unofficial probation officer died, at the ripe old age of 74. His work led to the popularity and eventually, the creation of Boston’s probation system, in 1878, when the state’s general assembly authorized the mayor of Boston to hire a probation officer, based on the work of the late criminal justice reformer.

The system became so popular, by 1890, almost every court in the state had a probation system. Other states and the federal government would follow suit much later. Now, the question is: Would there be a probation system in America, had it not been for the work of this man? The answer is probably yes, but it would’ve incorporated at a later date. In short, we do owe the formation and installation of the probation system to Mr. Augustus.

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