During the nineteenth century criminal law, in particular, was slowly evolving toward a more humanistic and equitable approach than had previously been taken. One man in Massachusetts, through an act of compassion, initiated a procedure that was the forerunner of the probation system.
John Augustus, born 1785, was a cobbler in Boston during the 1840s. He was interested in the legal process and often visited the criminal courts in Boston. In 1841, he was especially touched by the plight of a person convicted of public intoxication who begged the court not to incarcerate him and promised to give up alcohol in return for his freedom. Augustus, sensing hope for the man's rehabilitation, paid the man's bail; three weeks later, Augustus returned to court with his sober charge. The judge was favorably moved, and the man was allowed to go free.
After his initial success, John Augustus continued to take custody of convicted criminals. By the time he died in 1859, he had helped nearly
2,000 prisoners. He used his own money for bail or received financial aid from other residents of Boston who believed in his cause; several of these followers continued the program after his death.
Augustus's benevolence was made an official practice in 1878 when a law was enacted assigning a regular probation officer to the Boston criminal courts. In 1891, the commonwealth of Massachusetts adopted a similar program, and during the next nine years, other states began to provide for probationary programs based on the humanitarian actions of John Augustus.
Augustus died June 21, 1859, in Boston, Massachusetts.