Beyond probation

No one knows when or where the probation scandal will end, as multiple panels and criminal investigators turn stones over. Although all deplore the idea of a few powerful legislators controlling probation jobs, I’ve received conflicting input from constituents as to solutions. I continue to give the issue a lot of thought, but I want to report back.

In my evolving view, the big picture is this: As long as certain agencies have extraordinary motivation to please legislators, there will be problems with patronage. The commissioner of probation is nominally a judicial branch employee, but nine years ago, the legislature set the rules up so that the commissioner effectively reported to no one except powerful legislators. That’s what led to the wholesale corruption of the hiring process.

For another example, some human service agencies that contract with the state are dependent on legislative earmarks. I had a constituent who felt that state disclosure of his criminal record was making him unemployable in human services. To get a feel for whether it was really the record that was the problem or perhaps other issues, I called a private human services provider. I made very clear that I was inquiring generally about industry attitudes towards criminal records to help me advise an unnamed constituent. I was stunned when the provider insisted that I send my constituent over in person so she could interview him for a job. She did not, in the end, hire him and perhaps never had any intention of hiring him, but the response indicated to me, at a minimum, that the provider had experience fending off patronage calls from legislators.

Some might argue that legislators can never advise or help individuals without causing favoritism or distorting the legitimate priorities of agencies — and I would agree that this case shows how careful we have to be. But the stronger point is that only certain agencies bend so easily to legislative influence — those that are fending for themselves in seeking legislative funding.

Patronage isn’t everywhere in the state. Most agencies are under the supervision of the Governor. They tightly control managerial contacts with legislators. In many executive branch agencies, a legislative recommendation can be a negative — most managers want to hire people who are qualified and motivated, as opposed to connected. Connected people are often arrogant and hard to manage.

To fix probation, the top priority should be to place it under the supervision of a powerful independent manager — either the governor or the top judges. In many respects, it makes most organizational sense to keep probation in the judiciary, but the judiciary is not a political force that can defend itself effectively. Some suggest that the judicial branch may even now be vulnerable to continuing legislative patronage requests in various support functions.

Some have urged greater disclosure of legislative referrals and I would certainly support this, although I think phone calls are hard to police. Others have urged an outright ban on any legislative referrals. It’s hard for me to imagine writing a ban that would make conceptual sense. Many referrals based on personal knowledge of a candidate are perfectly legitimate; they do not cause favoritism if respectfully presented. It’s also hard for me to imagine successfully enforcing a ban.

I’m most concerned to clean up arrangements that make weak agencies directly beholden to the legislature for appropriations. We’ve abolished the Turnpike Authority. We’ll definitely fix probation. I hope we’ll look hard at the rest of the judicial branch. But we probably shouldn’t stop there — some other rumored patronage havens do come to mind.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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