Memories of Jack O’Brien

Probation commissioner killed program with no explanation

Reading the Boston Globe’s recent stories about patronage hires, shoddy financial oversight and various other nefarious doings at the Massachusetts probation department elicited memories of a meeting I had in 1998 with John (Jack) O’Brien, the now suspended but then brand-new probation commissioner.

I was external affairs director at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office at the time.  The DA, Ralph Martin, had instituted a novel approach to curbing the chronic presence of men seeking prostitutes in and around Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood.  Martin’s plan was to have convicted johns sentenced to four hours of community service in Chinatown: Clearing trash, cleaning sidewalks, and the like.

We figured the approach would generate publicity, which would put potential johns on notice that they could be in the next cleaning gang if they solicited prostitutes in the area.  We figured correctly.  The plan got huge press, starting with a front-page “DA Wants Johns to Sweep Streets” headline in the Herald and follow-ups from every other media outlet.

In addition, the plan reflected the inter-agency cooperation that marked crime fighting in the 1990s.  The judiciary agreed to sentence the johns to Chinatown-specific community service, the probation department (under then-commissioner Donald Cochran and his superb deputy Ron Corbett) provided the scheduling and supervision, the Chinatown community supplied a list of sites for cleaning, and the mayor’s office arranged for police escorts and rubbish removal.

It all worked very well.

And then Jack O’Brien became commissioner.

Shortly after O’Brien took the post, I received a call from a counterpart at the probation office saying O’Brien wanted to meet about the Chinatown program.  The meeting was brief.  O’Brien told me he had no intention of continuing the program.  Stunned, I told him the Chinatown community had embraced it, and that we felt it was deterring john traffic.  O’Brien was unmoved.  The johns would still perform community service, he said, just not in the area of their infraction.  But, I replied, that was the whole point.  O’Brien didn’t budge.

Oddly, O’Brien never explained his aversion to the program.  I guess he didn’t think he had to.  I remember, after informing Martin of O’Brien’s decision, how Martin contrasted the progressive approach taken by Cochran and Corbett to the dead-end stance of O’Brien.  Thus ended the Chinatown john project.

Another memory: We had asked news photographers not to shoot the faces of the johns.  They complied.  But, on one of the first cleaning sessions, Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis and I overheard one of the johns say “I can’t believe I have to do this.  I don’t even like Chinese people.”

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His face was on the Herald’s front page the next day.

Jim Borghesani is president of PrimePoint Strategic Media.