Lawyers Journal

Courts, executive branch debate who should oversee Probation Department

The aftermath of the state's Probation Department patronage scandal has fueled debate over which branch of government should manage the troubled agency. On Feb. 17, members of the judicial, legislative and executive branches discussed that issue in front of an overflow crowd at Suffolk University Law School.

"A New Path for Probation" drew more than 175 attendees to the Boston law school, with people lining the walls to listen in on the discussion. The event was presented by MassINC, the publisher of Commonwealth magazine, sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association and hosted by Suffolk University Law School's Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service.

The panel, which was moderated by Commonwealth Publisher Greg Torres, featured:

  • Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan
  • Massachusetts Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan
  • Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, co-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and a member of the Probation Reform Working Group; and
  • John Larivee, CEO of Community Resources for Justice.

A number of judges, legislators, officials and representatives of the legal community also sat in the audience.

MBA President Denise Squillante, in her introductory remarks, noted that "The MBA supports the preservation of the Probation Dept. as a part of the judiciary." Former Massachusetts Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger, who chairs the SJC's Task Force on Hiring in the Judicial Branch, was unable to attend but provided a video in which he lamented that the once-proud department had deliberately become "a fundamentally corrupt agency."

Mulligan argued that the judiciary should continue to oversee the agency, noting that veteran court officer Ronald Corbett Jr. has achieved "extraordinary" results since being appointed acting commissioner. "It's a new day in Probation," Mulligan said.

Torres said that while Corbett's effectiveness is without question, what is a concern is what will happen when he is no longer in charge.

Heffernan also praised Corbett's leadership, but argued that Gov. Deval Patrick's plans to bring the Probation Department under the authority of the executive branch would improve public safety, provide better oversight and transparency and save money. She noted that Patrick had developed his proposal years ago, before the agency's problems became public.

"It's a disgrace that we didn't even know how many people were on probation," she said.

Larivee noted that other states have successful probation departments regardless of whether they're run by the judiciary or the executive branch.

"The argument about where it ought to be ought to come last," he said, adding that the priority should be deciding what kind of agency it should be. "It can work in either location, but it depends on how it's run."

Creem said she was not speaking for the Legislature, but noted that putting both agencies under the same authority raises other concerns, alluding to the recent dismissal of several Parole Board members over a controversial decision.

"We've got a lot of problems in both departments that we've got to look at, and in the criminal justice system as a whole," she said.

Video highlights of the forum can be found at www.MassInc.org/Events/2011/02/A-New-Path-for-Probation.aspx.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association