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Panel: Don’t consolidate Mass. probation, parole

STEVE LEBLANC

A task force appointed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to review the state’s troubled Probation Department is rejecting key proposals made by Gov. Deval Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The panel headed by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger recommended a series of changes in the department’s hiring and promotion practices. Among them is the installation of a tracking system designed to record all phases of the application process, including any actions taken by those involved in hiring and promoting an applicant, and all recommendations and references any applicant receives.

The report also recommends oversight of the department’s hiring and promotion by an outside entity for the next two years and prompt review of staffing levels in the department to guarantee that there are sufficient workers for the number of cases the department is handling.

“The task force, under Attorney Harshbarger’s leadership, has produced a thorough, first rate report in a very limited time frame,” Chief Justice Roderick Ireland said in a statement.

The task force recommendations follow the release last year of an investigative report also commissioned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that found abuses in the Probation Department’s hiring processes.

That report by independent counsel Paul Ware said there apparently was “an understanding” between certain legislators and former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien that generous appropriations for the department were linked to O’Brien’s willingness to give jobs to applicants recommended by the lawmakers.

O’Brien was suspended and later resigned.

The Harshbarger report dismissed two proposed changes to the department floated by Patrick and DeLeo.

DeLeo has proposed requiring the civil service exam for all probation job-seekers, saying it would reduce chances for political interference.

The report said bringing the department’s hiring under the state’s civil service process “would not achieve the necessary reforms.”

And Patrick earlier this month filed a sweeping bill designed to merge the probation and parole departments into a single new executive branch agency, called the Department of Re-entry and Community Supervision. The governor said the move would save $14 million annually.

The panel labeled all proposals to relocate or consolidate the Probation Department, currently under the control of the judiciary, as a “distraction from renewal and reform.”

The Patrick administration’s Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan said she disagreed with the report’s rejection of a unified probation and parole department.

“I think the unified system is better public safety and more efficient,” she said. “The time to do that is now.”

DeLeo said he’s read the report and looks forward to meeting with members of the task force. He also said he expects House lawmakers to debate changes to the department.

“I hope to file legislation that addresses the administration of probation and the hiring of probation personnel soon,” DeLeo said in a statement.

The Harshbarger report comes after the release of a report by a panel appointed by Patrick, DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray that also recommended changes to the Probation Department, from requiring entry level exams for first-time job-seekers to ending the probation commissioner’s “exclusive authority” to hire and fire probation officers.

That report also urged that all recommendations made on behalf of job applicants, whether by letter, e-mail, by phone or in person, be available for inspection by the chief justice for administration and management.

According to the Ware report, 24 of 36 job candidates sponsored by former House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi were hired. Sixteen of 28 candidates sponsored by former Senate President Robert Travaglini were hired.

Seven of 12 candidates sponsored by DeLeo, including his godson, also were hired. DeLeo has acknowledged writing a letter of recommendation for his godson but said he put no “undue pressure” on the department.

Both the Harshbarger task force and the legislative panel made some similar recommendations, including giving the chief justice for administration and management more oversight over hiring and promotion.

The Probation Department continues to be the focus of a series of probes, including investigations by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Associated Press