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News and Features: Online exclusives

Mulligan, Heffernan bid for Probation

Key lawmaker hedges; Harshbarger video

BY: Jack Sullivan
Photographs By: Krisela Millios

Video highlights from "A New Path for Probation"

As the top administrative judge and Gov. Deval Patrick’s public safety secretary each made their pitch to oversee the state’s troubled probation department, a key lawmaker indicated the Legislature is in no hurry to move the agency from its current oversight structure.

“I don’t think we can say if we move it here or there, we’re going to solve the problems,” state Sen. Cynthia Creem said at a forum on the future of probation. “You’d have the same hiring problems whether it’s in the executive or judiciary. Where it goes may not be the immediate issue.”

The forum, hosted by Suffolk University’s Rapport Center for Law and Public Service and sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association and MassINC, brought together some of the key players who will decide the future of the agency that was once a national model but is under fire after more than a year of news reports about how it devolved into a patronage haven for the politically connected.

In addition to a bill from Patrick to move probation into the executive branch and pair it with parole, the Legislature is considering other changes to revamp the agency, including a proposal by House Speaker Robert DeLeo to make all probation appointments subject to civil service.

Creem, co-chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, was noncommittal about what action she favors, but she pointed out that patronage transgressions were not limited to legislators, repeatedly saying the executive branch and even judges took advantage of their positions to recommend friends and family members for state jobs.

John O’Brien, the former commissioner of probation who orchestrated the hiring process there, did not attend the forum but he was the target of everybody’s pitch to change the oversight and administration of the department.

Robert Mulligan, the chief justice for administration and management, whose office was the titular head of probation but had little power because of legislative changes over the years, argued that the judiciary should maintain control of the agency. At one point, he half-jokingly suggested parole should be moved into the judicial branch but later said he was opposed to combining the agencies.

Mulligan said the manner in which Ronald Corbett, the newly appointed replacement for O’Brien, has transformed probation in nine months is evidence that there is no need to hand the oversight of the embattled department over to the executive branch, as Patrick proposes.

“What Ron Corbett has already accomplished is extraordinary,” Mulligan said.

In a statement on videotape presented prior to the panel discussion, former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, the head of a probation task force appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court, said lawmakers and members of the executive and judicial branches all knew something was wrong at probation and did nothing. “The silence was deafening,” he said.

Mulligan later offered a different viewpoint. “I don’t think anyone, myself included, was aware of the pervasive nature of the hiring process” under O’Brien, he said.

Mary Beth Heffernan, secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety, said consolidating the probation department with parole under the executive branch would make the combined agencies more efficient and cost taxpayers less money. She said the department would become more transparent and accountable under the executive branch because the judiciary is exempt from the state’s Public Records Law.

O’Brien, for example, reported the number of people on probation was 250,000, a number that appears to have been inflated to justify his department’s hiring and funding requests to the Legislature. In an interview with the Boston Globe in December, Corbett, who was not at today’s event because of a previously scheduled vacation, said the actual number was about 85,000.

“A unified system is better for public safety,” Heffernan said. “It’s a disgrace we didn’t know how many people were on probation.”

Mulligan said studies showed 25 percent of released inmates are placed on parole and an equal percentage was ordered to probation. About 14 percent are placed on both, which some argued as a reason for streamlining the systems. Another panelist, John Larivee of Community Resources for Justice, which has studied organizational structures of offender supervision around the country, said whether probation is under the executive or judiciary branch, consolidating resources and eliminating redundancy and conflicts between parole and probation is the key.

“We found great probation departments in the executive branch,” he said, pointing out that about three dozen states have parole under that branch of government. “It’s not the death knell for probation.”

But Justice Robert Cordy of the Supreme Judicial Court said from the audience that shifting probation to the executive branch would strain the relationships judges have with probation officers. Cordy, an aide to former Gov. William Weld, said the crisis of the day sometimes could drive political decisions on probation actions.

“If the whole system runs off that (political influence), that’s not good,” he said.

Heffernan insisted it’s exactly the experience those in the executive branch have in dealing with political pressures that would make those officials more adept at handling those kinds of situations. “The executive is used to that,” she said.

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