Politics in Probation

The recent Globe spotlight analysis of the probation department confirmed what many observers have long believed – that the probation department has become too political. Close relationships between probation staff and key legislators had long been very visible.

There was an earlier red flag when the legislature voted last November to override the Governor’s veto of restored probation spending – a job preservation vote that made little sense given that probation spending had previously risen dramatically. It came right after a vote to preserve spending for legislative jobs. I voted in the minority against both increases — both felt wrong as other jobs were being cut.

The disappointing news last week was the response of some leaders that political influence is OK in probation. Probationary supervision is an important strategy for cost-effectively controlling crime and it is important that we do probation well.

A good probation officer can simultaneously rehabilitate and punish. Good probationary supervision involves staying in touch with an offender and making sure that they are living right – staying sober, not staying out late, going to work or looking for a job, not fighting with family. It involves identifying helping resources so that the offender has a chance of succeeding – drug and alcohol treatment, skills training, employment placement, counseling. And it involves holding the offender accountable and punishing smaller failures with modest sanctions like an earlier curfew or a short incarceration. Finally, it involves making a judgment when accumulated failures require a longer incarceration.

Changing bad habits is painful and the sheer humiliation of having to report one’s daily doings to an unsympathetic authority figure is punishment enough that many offenders prefer prison. But a prison sentence condemns young criminals to more criminality. The simple iron routines and sick power relationships of the prison environment are unlike lawful life in the community. Prison experience tends to erode basic life skills – industrious management of one’s own time, management of healthy personal and professional relationships.

The difficult question is how best to insulate probation from politics – to assure merit hiring and promotion and to assure a focus on mission. The current arrangement where the probation department effectively reports only to the legislature is not healthy. Should it be moved back under the judicial branch or placed in the executive branch?

Historically, probation was part of the judicial branch. Some of what probation officers do is an extension of judicial work. Judges play an intrinsic role in community supervision – they decide on punishments and they may use the conversation that they have with the offender at sentencing to push the offender in the right direction. Probation officers provide judges with essential information on how offenders are doing – at the time of initial sentencing and when the offender slips on probation.

The Governor has proposed moving the Probation Department into the executive branch. The most intensive probation supervision is clearly an executive branch function. For some years, the probation department has run day reporting centers where offenders report to receive services. Probation officers often work side-by-side with police officers in patrolling neighborhoods where many youths are on probation. Judges generally have neither the time nor the skill set to oversee this work.

In my view, the Senate President got it right when she proposed promptly moving probation back under direct judicial supervision and initiating a study of how to manage it in the long term. Most likely, that study will conclude that we need to divide the functions of probation between the judicial branch and the executive branch. It seems very unlikely that the study would conclude that the status quo is the best we can do.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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