Lawyers Journal

A Q&A with Ron Corbett, Probation commissioner

Ronald P. Corbett Jr., Ed.D., is matter-of-factly looking beyond the troubles of the Massachusetts Probation Department to restore its former practices, when the department was nationally recognized as an innovative leader. No stranger to the legal community or state government, commissioner Corbett is swiftly applying his management know-how to get the fraud-riddled department back on track in the interest of public safety.

Corbett, a former deputy commissioner of the department in the 1990s, was named interim commissioner, to serve a two-year term, in January. This transition involved a move from serving as executive director of the Supreme Judicial Court -- a position he held since 1998, when he lost the bid for commissioner to John J. O'Brien, around whom the department's recent controversy swirls. In addition to his role with Probation, the Harvard-educated Corbett has taught at University of Massachusetts Lowell since 1979 and is currently an adjunct professor in the Department of Criminal Justice there.

Corbett served as a guest speaker at the February meeting of the MBA's Criminal Justice Section Council only weeks after being named commissioner. Following that meeting, he sat down with MBA Director of Media and Communications Tricia M. Oliver to provide further insight. The following Q&A provides highlights from that interview.

Lawyers Journal: What does it feel like to return and now lead a department that is very different from the time you left it?

Corbett: It's a homecoming of sorts. During my previous 26 years at the Probation Department, I developed a strong bond with the department and its staff. About 70 percent of the staff are the same, so I am in familiar territory. I previously served as deputy commissioner, so I am used to many of the administrative issues. The difference is that, now, as commissioner, the buck stops with me. If you are the agency head, it falls to you to make the complex calls, the tough ones. I'm also getting used to the new duty of acting as spokesperson.

Lawyers Journal: When you were part of the department initially, it was heralded as a national model. What were the components or characteristics that provided that stellar reputation?

Corbett: There was a big push in the 1990s for community-based supervision and participation with clergy, police and others. Projects such as our "Operation Night Light" were recognized nationally. Officers who were doing the work were great innovators. We were developing a new model for many probation departments to follow. We basically took the office-bound, 9 to 5 work schedule and blew that up. We had some success and gained some media attention. President [William J.] Clinton made a visit in the 1990s to highlight our work as well. The lion's share of the credit goes to the officers who stepped forward to do something differently. I think the combination of that - superb innovative work at the line level - and national involvement from the top administrators, garnered the favorable reputation.

Lawyers Journal:
Now poised at the helm, what vision/mission do you have, and are holding all others to, in the Probation Department?

Corbett: It is all driven by focusing on three key objectives -- reducing re-offending, promoting compliance with court orders and meeting the informational needs of the court in a complete, reliable and timely manner.

Lawyers Journal: How do you shake the recent culture and history of an embattled Probation Department?

Corbett: I advise against looking backward and suggest instead focusing on the work at hand. There is no profit in focusing always in the rear view mirror. We want rather to bring attention to the good that is being done. I think many people have turned the page, as have I.

Lawyers Journal: What are your thoughts regarding in which branch of government the Probation Department resides?

Corbett: I strongly believe that, in Massachusetts, it should be in the judicial branch. Beyond that, the most important question is, "How is the agency performing?" You can look across the nation and see success in both branches [executive and judiciary] -- the key variance is how the department is administered and led.

Lawyers Journal: Would the close collaboration exist between probation officers and judges if the department were to move to the executive branch?

Corbett: I don't think that close collaboration is likely to survive such a move. We gain a lot by having all the members of the courthouse team working for the same entity.

Lawyers Journal: You've said those who are cut out to serve as probation officers should ideally have a strong mind and big heart. Why is that combination so important in probation?

Corbett: When I was asked at a meeting of probation officers, "Are we supposed to be cops or social workers? I answered with another question -- "How many of you are parents to teenagers?" I asked those that raised their hands, "Would you say you were a cop or social worker?" One of those that raised his hand said, "At different times, I was both." Bingo -- the combination of both is necessary. Probation officers need to set and enforce clear boundaries (that is, they must be strong minded) but they also need to promote rehabilitation and connect offenders with the services they need to make life changes  (that is, they must be big hearted). One-handed probation doesn't work. We are not the police, but we have a strong law enforcement responsibility. Most Americans are willing to give offenders a break if they warrant it, but most are not willing to give them a free ride. We purchase the moral authority to do treatment in the currency of enforcement and strict accountability. If we do not meet our enforcement responsibilities, we lose credibility on the treatment piece.

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