Advocates: Probationers ‘Not Treated Well’ By Under-Fire Department

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The Ware report that showed rampant corruption in the state Probation Department is now being closely studied by the U.S. Attorney and in the 2,000-employee department. But what has the decade of alleged nepotism meant for the people on probation supervised by these employees?

BOSTON — Did you know that probation is the most common outcome of a court case? If you are caught vandalizing school property, instead of jail, it’s probation. If you are arrested for the first time for drunk driving, probation.

There are about 92,000 people on probation every year, according to the department’s acting commissioner. Yet the department has now been exposed for having corrupt hiring practices. This has created a deeply dysfunctional environment, say some lawyers and criminal justice advocates.

“In the past it’s been a complete black hole,” said Lael Chester, the executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. She and other advocates repeatedly asked Probation for basic statistics, but they never got them.

“We had no idea how many kids were on probation,” she said. “We had no idea how they were doing. We had no idea what the success was or wasn’t. You really couldn’t tell.”

Without numbers, Chester has had to rely on stories from people on probation to assess how the department worked under now-disgraced Commissioner John O’Brien. She says over the past 10 years, she’s heard from a lot of disappointed kids and their families.

“They were not treated well,” Chester said. “They were not given effective service and the result is that some of them then got pushed into the deeper end of the system and were not given the opportunity to pull their lives around and be productive, healthy adults.”

The role of a probation officer is to make sure the defendant complies with the conditions set by the court, such as: stay sober, obey a curfew, get a job. The system is designed to help the person integrate successfully into society. But that wasn’t always happening under O’Brien, says John Larivee, head of Community Resources for Justice.

“As an organization it stopped thinking about, how do we do probation and do it well, how do we best serve the commonwealth of Massachusetts on a public safety agenda, in terms of keeping probationers compliant with probation conditions and helping them succeed in the community,” Larivee said. “At an organizational level that clearly has not been on the agenda.”

The public safety consequences of this are hard to measure, especially since Probation didn’t release any data about outcomes. On the day-to-day level, many probation officers do their jobs well, say criminal defense lawyers, including Ed Ryan, of Fitchburg, who represented one of the two homeless people accused of setting fire to a warehouse in Worcester in 1999, killing six firefighters. Ryan says the case was continued without a finding and the defendants were placed on probation for five years.

“And then they successfully completed probation, and that could not have happened without the dedicated work of really the whole department,” Ryan said, “the line officers that supervised these two and bent over backwards to help.”

But Ryan says there are other aspects in the department under O’Brien that he doesn’t agree with.

“By and large I’m quite satisfied, 90 percent of the time, with what I see,” he said. “But I have seen a sea change in philosophy: it’s more punitive than rehabilitative.”

Advocates want the next commissioner to set benchmarks to measure the success of the department: Has public safety improved? Are probationers getting help with substance abuse, employment and housing? These measures, they say, will treat the probationers fairly and keep the state safe.

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