The cult of Corbett

The only reform needed at the state’s Probation Department appears to be Ronald Corbett.

The 27-year veteran of the court system was appointed commissioner of probation last year after his predecessor, John J. O’Brien, was suspended and later resigned in the wake of reports that he ran the agency like a fiefdom, using a rigged hiring process to dole out jobs to people recommended by well-connected politicians.

Corbett quickly moved to change the agency’s hiring process, upgraded internal procedures, and restored lines of communication with the rest of the state’s correctional system. By most accounts, he’s done a good job. But court officials are now saying that he’s doing such a good job that it would be a step backward if the Legislature began tinkering with the agency or decided, as the governor has recommended, to merge probation with parole in the executive branch.

The status quo strategy has worked brilliantly. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have already decreed that probation will remain in the judicial branch. But even though the decision has been made, all the parties went through the motions on Wednesday at a hearing on probation legislation before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Mary Beth Heffernan, the governor’s secretary of public safety, was the lone supporter of the governor’s bill. She said consolidating probation and parole in the executive branch would save money, improve supervision of those convicted of crimes, and increase transparency at the agency because the executive branch, unlike the judicial branch, is subject to the state’s Public Records Law.

A phalanx of judges and probation officers turned out to make the case that probation needs to stay right where it is in the judicial branch under the supervision of Corbett. There was a lot of testimony about the special relationship between judges and probation officers, but the key message was that Corbett is in charge now and doing a great job.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland praised Corbett. Robert Mulligan, the chief justice for administration and management, showered him with plaudits. Even Heffernan, outside the hearing room, had words of praise for the new probation commissioner. But she asked the question that ought to be posed by anyone committed to meaningful reform of the department: What will happen when he is gone?

“What happens in five years?” she asked. “The public deserves transparency. The public deserves accountability.”

It’s a good question. In 1998, Corbett, who had developed a national reputation as a probation innovator, was supposed to take over as the state’s probation commissioner. But John Irwin, then the chief justice for administration and management, bypassed him and appointed O’Brien. Corbett moved over to a high-level job in the Supreme Judicial Court and he and other top court officials watched as O’Brien turned probation into a secretive, insular arm of the Legislature. O’Brien hired the well-connected (including Irwin’s daughter, another Irwin relative, and DeLeo’s godson), told reporters seeking information to buzz off, and apparently even invented a fictitious case load. (Heffernan says O’Brien claimed the agency handled more than 200,000 cases, when the actual number is now believed to be closer to 80,000.)

Corbett is now trying to undo much of what O’Brien did. He says hiring is no longer rigged, internal standards are being raised, and he is collaborating with the executive branch as if he’s a part of it. “There’s nothing about us being in separate branches that prevents us from being full collaborators,” he said, adding that he talks to Heffernan all the time.

Corbett also says he is bringing transparency to the agency. “We have a responsibility to be transparent,” he said.

But Corbett and his bosses aren’t supporting legislation to make the judiciary subject to the Public Records Law. Ireland says he’s in favor of greater transparency, but told CommonWealth in January and again more recently that extending the reach of the Public Records Law to the judiciary requires a lot more study. I wanted to pin Ireland down on the Public Records Law after Wednesday’s hearing, but he refused to talk to reporters.

Sen. Cynthia Creem, the cochair of the Judiciary Committee, asked Corbett during the hearing about his efforts to increase transparency. He said the agency is responding to all questions and sharing the results of its “activities and results.”

What about disclosing the names of those who recommend people for jobs at probation? Creem asked.

Corbett said the recommendations are part of the job applicant’s personnel file and therefore not open to the public. But he said he would provide full disclosure about the hiring process itself. “I hope the result of that is some confidence in the system,” he said.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Other lawmakers asked what they could do to make sure the reforms begun by Corbett remain after he is gone, but none of the judges in attendance urged them to pass any legislation. The status quo – with Corbett – was enough. Creem summed up the philosophy best at the end of Corbett’s testimony.

“Mr. Corbett,” she said, “we’re going to ask you to stay on another 27 years.”