New public safety secretary draws on criminal justice background

Issue April 2015 By Mike Vigneux

Daniel J. Bennett is used to looking at things from different angles. During an impressive legal career as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, he's often been on opposite sides of the same issues. Now he has an opportunity to analyze issues from a leadership standpoint and help craft policies that keep the commonwealth a safer place.

Bennett, the senior first assistant for the Worcester County District Attorney's Office for the last four years, was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to serve as secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security in early February. This role includes oversight of 13 state public safety agencies including the State Police, Department of Correction, Parole Board, Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the State Police Crime Laboratory.

The broad scope of the position also includes management of agencies such as the Massachusetts National Guard, the Sex Offender Registry Board and the state's 911 Department. Bennett has four undersecretaries that report to him and cover specific areas.

Named a Prosecutor of the Year in 2013 by the Massachusets District Attorneys Association, Bennett acknowledges that his experience on both sides of the legal profession has given him a unique ability to appreciate many viewpoints, including those that differ from his own.

"Some of the best relationships I ever built were with defense attorneys when I was a prosecutor and with prosecutors when I was a defense attorney," said Bennett.

Many of those who were on opposite sides of the courtroom from Bennett during his career were some of the first to call and congratulate him on his appointment.

Before coming to Worcester, Bennett spent four years as senior trial counsel in the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office. He also worked 11 years as criminal defense counsel in private practice and served as an assistant district attorney in the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office. A Bay State native, Bennett is a graduate of Harvard University and Suffolk University Law School.

Reducing recidivism

Although it is early on in the Baker administration, there are several ongoing public safety initiatives that will be looked at as priorities in Bennett's area.

In addition to finding creative solutions to the overall public safety budget, a key priority for the governor will be to work with the Department of Correction and Parole Board to reduce the rate of recidivism with re-entry programs for inmates.

"Gov. Baker wants to work inmates back into society with a plan for where to live and where to get a job so they can re-integrate back into the community and are less likely to re-offend," said Bennett. "If you look across the country it's not a conservative or a liberal issue. It cuts across both sides of the spectrum. It's more an issue of good government."

Bennett notes that specialty courts, particularly drug courts, can play a key role in working to curb the recidivism rate.

"Drug courts make a lot of sense when you talk about recidivism. We need to get people out of that terrible cycle where they commit an offense, we place them into incarceration and they come out and commit another offense," said Bennett. "One way to get them out of that cycle is through drug court. There's certainly a problem with opium right now within the commonwealth and something has to be done to address that."

Bennett has been in the new position for only a couple of months, but has already made an impression throughout both the legal and criminal justice communities.

"Secretary Bennett has clearly proven over the past few months to be very accessible and keenly interested in the statewide bar's perspective on criminal justice matters," said MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy.

Perception of police

Public safety, specifically as it relates to police, has recently been part of the national conversation after the shooting and death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August. Some protests of police activity in other parts of the country resulted in violence, but the protests in Boston were handled by police without incident.

While a tumultuous relationship between the public and the police has developed in some areas since last summer, that typically has not been the case in Massachusetts, a state where police were celebrated after the apprehension of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in April 2013.

"In Massachusetts I think people have a good perception of the police and I think the important thing is to work with the police to make sure that continues," said Bennett. "Police officers are individuals, and you have to look at every situation as an individual situation."

Criminal justice attorney compensation

A May 2014 report of the MBA's Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation found that salaries of attorneys who work in the state's criminal justice system are inadequate. The report also found that salaries of entry-level assistant district attorneys rank well below those in neighboring states such as New Hampshire and Connecticut.

In his role as senior first assistant DA in Worcester, Bennett oversaw assistant district attorneys and witnessed firsthand the challenges that mid-level ADAs face in terms of salary. Many stay for a few years to gain experience and then go on to better paying positions. Losing that mid-level ADA definitely presents a challenge for a DA's office, according to Bennett.

"You're in a cycle where, unless there is an unusual circumstance, you're always going to lose the people that you've trained," he said.

A proven problem solver

Two of Bennett's most valuable qualities gleaned from his experience as a prosecutor are his problem-solving skills and his ability to deal with people in stressful situations.

When Bennett addresses a problem he doesn't panic and he often looks past the seemingly obvious answer. He analyzes all the information and tries to find a different type of answer to solve the problem.

"One thing my experience as a prosecutor has helped me with is the ability to take a problem or an issue that comes up on a daily basis and look for an inventive solution to attack that problem," said Bennett.

"Dan will always educate himself on an issue before he makes a decision. Some people jump to conclusions, but he doesn't," said MBA President-elect Robert W. Harnais, who worked with Bennett in private practice in Quincy. "When you have a conversation with him, you know he's really listening to you. He was someone I would turn to for advice on cases all the time."

Gerry Leone, a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP and former Middlesex County District Attorney, has known Bennett since high school and was his college roommate at Harvard where they played football together.

"Dan Bennett embodies a special combination of intelligence and mental toughness, personal drive and passion for things he cares about, and dedication to successfully accomplishing whatever goal and objective that he is focused on achieving," said Leone.

During his time in Worcester County, Bennett prosecuted multiple murder cases and often dealt with people in high-stress situations. To succeed in that kind of situation, Bennett learned not to get caught up in the emotions surrounding those cases.

"You have to be the calming influence without getting to their level of stress. You can be an advocate for a position without taking it personally," said Bennett.

Bennett particularly enjoyed his four years working in Worcester where he oversaw all aspects of office administration, including personnel, finance and victim witness services.

"Dan was a great fit for our office,'' said Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. "I loved having him around and hated to see him go. The young attorneys in the office learned a lot from him and the victims' families benefitted from his hard work. His work on our unresolved cases in particular was exemplary. Dan is going to be a success wherever he goes."

Throughout his career as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, Bennett has helped people on a case-by-case basis. In his new position, he looks forward to helping make Massachusetts safer for everyone.

"As a DA you can make real differences, changing lives and making things better for individual people," he said. "Here, you can make changes in policies that can improve lives for a lot of people. That's something to really aspire to."