You are here


Beginnings of Probation and Pretrial Services

The Power to Suspend Sentences

Although many states had passed probation laws, beginning with Massachusetts in 1878, probation was not established at the federal level until much later. For many years, the federal courts had used a form of probation through suspending sentences. Increasingly, however, the U.S. Department of Justice disapproved of the use of the suspended sentence, believing that it infringed upon executive pardoning power and therefore was unconstitutional. The matter came before the Supreme Court in Ex parte United States, 242 U.S. 27. In what became known as the Killits decision, the Supreme Court in 1916 held that federal courts did not have the power to suspend sentence indefinitely and that there was no reason or right for the courts to continue the practice. The Supreme Court suggested probation legislation as a remedy.

A Controversial Sentencing Option

Establishing probation as a sentencing option in the federal courts did not happen quickly or easily. Opinion on the wisdom of doing so was sharply divided. Some federal judges were for probation, seeing it as an alternative to the sometimes harsh penalties they were compelled to impose. Other federal judges were against probation, finding it too lenient. Congress could not reach agreement on a national plan. The first bills for a federal probation law had been introduced in Congress in 1909. But it was not until 1925--and after more than 30 bills had been introduced--that one such bill became law.

Probation Act of 1925

The Probation Act of 1925, signed by President Calvin Coolidge, provided for a probation system in the federal courts (except in the District of Columbia). It gave the courts the power to suspend the imposition or execution of sentence and place defendants on probation for such period and on such terms and conditions as they deemed best. The Act also authorized courts to appoint one or more persons to serve as probation officers without compensation and one salaried probation officer.

Administration in the Early Years

Initially, the administration of federal probation was the responsibility of the Office of the Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice. Direct supervision fell to the superintendent of prisons, who was also in charge of prison industries and parole. In effect, federal probation officers answered to two authorities. Although the Attorney General set their salaries and provided for expenses such as clerical services and travel, judges appointed them. This arrangement changed in 1940, when general oversight of the probation system was transferred from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Pretrial Services as an Experiment

In 1974, Congress enacted the Speedy Trial Act. Title II of the Act authorized the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to establish "demonstration" pretrial services agencies in 10 judicial districts. The goal was to reduce crime by persons released to the community pending trial and to reduce unnecessary pretrial detention. The agencies were to interview each person charged with other than a petty offense, verify background information, and present a report to the judicial officer considering bail. The agencies also were to supervise persons released to their custody pending trial and to help defendants on bail locate and use community services. Five of the agencies were administered by the Administrative Office and five by boards of trustees appointed by the chief judges of the district courts.

Pretrial Services Act of 1982

President Ronald Reagan signed the Pretrial Services Act of 1982. The Act authorized expansion of pretrial services from the 10 demonstration districts to every federal judicial district (except the District of Columbia). It granted an 18-month evaluation period for each court to decide whether to establish separate pretrial services offices or provide pretrial services through the probation office. Consequently, each court chose the form of pretrial services organization that best met its needs, considering such factors as criminal caseload and court locations. Expanding pretrial services to all districts marked a significant milestone for what was now the "federal probation and pretrial services system." Now officers were involved in the criminal justice process from the time a person was arrested on a federal charge until he or she completed community supervision.

U.S. Probation in the District of New Hampshire

U.S. Probation in the District of New Hampshire was established in 1933 when Brainard Jacobs was appointed its first probation officer.  In addition to his work in New Hampshire, Jacobs also was responsible for providing probation services to the Districts of Maine and Vermont during the early part of his career.  In the early 1950s, Timothy Cronin succeeded Jacobs and served the district until approximately 1955 when there was a brief period in which the position was vacant.  In 1957, Lawrence Wendell Knight, Jr., son of a former Warden of the New Hampshire State Prison, became the district’s next probation officer. 

The office remained staffed with one probation officer and one clerk until 1974 when the Administrative Office authorized a second probation officer for the district, which resulted in the hiring of David Sawyer.  Knight was forced to retire in 1976 when U.S. Probation adopted the hazardous duty retirement system, and he was older than 57 at the time.  Sawyer was subsequently named Chief U.S. Probation Officer in 1978 and maintained that position for nearly 14 years before stepping down.  His replacement, Thomas K. Tarr, the former Director of the Division of Field Services for the New Hampshire Department of Corrections, became the longest tenured Chief U.S. Probation Officer in the district’s history, occupying that position for nearly 22 years before retiring in January 2014.  Jonathan E. Hurtig was named Chief U.S. Probation Officer on January 13, 2014.  He arrived in New Hampshire after spending 16 years in the District of Massachusetts, the last seven as Deputy Chief U.S. Probation Officer.

Staffing in the District of New Hampshire has grown exponentially since 1980 when the office consisted of two probation officers and one clerk.  In 1984, the office absorbed the pretrial services function and became known as U.S. Probation & Pretrial Services for the District of New Hampshire.  Currently, the office consists of 20 probation officers, 6 support staff, 2 interns and 1 information technology specialist.

When the office opened in 1933, it was located in the then U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, now the Legislative Building for the State of New Hampshire.  The office remained there until 1966 when it moved with the rest of the Court to the James C. Cleveland Federal Building.  The office has been in the Warren B. Rudman U.S. Courthouse since 1997.