Thursday, May 19, 2011

Senate Adopts Republican Probation Reforms

The Senate adopted a series of probation reforms offered by the Senate Republican Caucus today, incorporating the GOP proposals into a comprehensive probation reform and court reorganization bill that passed unanimously.

A total of seven Republican amendments were approved by the Senate, including one that directs the newly-created advisory committee on personnel standards to use merit-based standards for hiring court personnel, and to post these standards on the trial court’s website. Another amendment requires applicants for any trial court position to be certified as meeting the merit-based considerations for employment before any letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of the applicant can be taken into consideration.

The probation department has operated for far too long under a dark cloud where politics tainted the hiring and promotion process. With the passage of this bill, we can begin to restore public confidence that probation and court personnel are being hired or promoted based on their qualifications and skills, and not on other factors such as political connections.

The move to create a more transparent hiring process was sparked by a scathing November 2010 report by independent counsel Paul Ware that unveiled evidence of an extensive “pay to play” system within the probation department under former commissioner John O’Brien. The report, which detailed examples of “systemic abuse and corruption” within the department, concluded that “[H]iring and promotion have been thoroughly compromised by a systemic rigging of the interview and selection process in favor of candidates who have political or other personal connections.”

The Ware report uncovered a serious patronage issue within the probation department which needs to be addressed. Probation officers play an important public safety role, and it is imperative that these positions be filled by individuals who are truly qualified for the rigors and demands of the job.

Other Republican amendments adopted by the Senate today would:

• require the newly-created court administrator to study the feasibility of allowing trial court fees and fines to be paid with a credit card;

• clarify the process for filling court vacancies;

• expand the membership of the proposed advisory board charged with offering recommendations on the management of the probation office to include an active member of the Massachusetts Bar and an experienced probation officer;

• require the chief justice of the trial court and the court administrator to submit a report to the Legislature 90 days prior to the temporary closure or temporary relocation of any courthouse, detailing personnel transfers, reallocation of resources, the impact on other courthouses and other factors associated with such actions; and

• ensure that supervision is provided in an orderly and effective manner for those individuals who are subject to dual supervision.

The House approved a version of the court reorganization bill last week. The differences between the two versions will be worked out by a six-member conference committee that is expected to be appointed next week.