commonwealth first began investigating patronage at Probation in 2008. We tried to pry records from the Probation Department under the state’s Public Records Law, but the agency, as part of the judiciary, said it was exempt from the statute (see related story in Inquiries).
We also interviewed people who were in a position to know what was going on at Probation, but they had little to say. Former Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Margaret Marshall, for example, talked with pride during an interview a year ago about the court system’s embrace of transparency and accountability on her watch (“Hail to the Chief,” Winter ’10). She boasted that staffing models allowed her to know precisely how many employees each court needed to do its job.
Yet when I asked her about the lack of transparency at the Probation Department and why those same staffing models were not applied to that agency, her answer was baffling. “When we did the staffing model for the processing of cases, the same study was not done for the processing of Probation,” she said. “Of course, I’m aware of the concerns that are expressed, but if your question is, is there some way that I can’t get access to data, the answer to that is no.”
Gov. Deval Patrick, who often remarks now about his long-standing concern about Probation, had little to say about patronage a year ago when he first broached the idea of moving Probation from the judiciary into the executive branch. He and his staff talked only about potential efficiencies and savings by combining Probation with parole. His only comment on patronage then was in response to a question I put to him.
“Yes, I have a concern,” he said. “I have a concern about the accountability and the transparency of that agency.”
Yet four months later, when Rep. Charles Murphy, the chairman of the House’s budget committee, released a spending plan that kept Probation right where it was, under the Legislature’s thumb, the governor didn’t even respond.
The key players on Beacon Hill all knew there was a problem at Probation, but none of them blew the whistle. Former Probation commissioner John O’Brien hired the people recommended by powerful politicians, apparently so those politicians would keep increasing his budget. Court and administration officials stood by silently and did little or nothing out of fear the Legislature would cut their budgets or derail their legislative priorities if they spoke out.In short, the power dynamics on Beacon Hill made it difficult, if not impossible, for calls for reform at Probation to bubble up from within state government. It took a vigorous press to expose the problem. CommonWealth can take credit for breaking several stories about Probation, but it wasn’t until The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team published a report on patronage abuses at the agency last May that the whole dynamic flipped. The report gave all the players the cover they needed to act.
Marshall and her colleagues at the SJC appointed an independent counsel and gave him subpoena power the day after the Globe’s initial report. After his report was finished, task forces were appointed and the various investigatory agencies—the attorney general, the US attorney, and the inspector general—all jumped into action.It might have happened a lot sooner if the Legislature didn’t micromanage court budgets, if the judicial branch was subject to the Public Records Law, and if court officials acted more like managers and less like enablers. As probation reform begins to take shape, these causal factors should be addressed so we don’t have a repeat performance.