The Massachusetts Probation Department would remain under the jurisdiction of the courts, but a new civilian administrator would be hired to help run the agency under a bill unveiled last week by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.
The legislation, which has the backing of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, also would require those seeking jobs in the courts and across state government to first pass a written test. All letters of recommendation, including those from lawmakers, would be shielded from those making hiring decisions until after an applicant has passed the written test.
DeLeo said the bill would help restore public confidence in the embattled department.
“This isn’t tinkering around the edges,” DeLeo, D-Winthrop, said during a Statehouse press conference. “This is a major, major policy change.”
DeLeo’s bill rejects Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to merge the Probation Department with the Massachusetts Parole Board and bring both under the control of the executive branch.
Patrick argues that under the current system, offenders are released to a fragmented, bifurcated system split between the judicial and executive branches.
A spokesman for Patrick said last Thursday that the governor still believes merging the two agencies is the best way to keep the department accountable, but looks forward to working with DeLeo.
One of the biggest changes in DeLeo’s bill is the creation of a new civilian court administrator to be responsible for the general administration of the court, including overseeing appropriations, contracts and leases. Patrick also has recommended the creation of a court administrator.
The chief justice for administration and management still would be responsible for overseeing the judicial calendar and administering disciplinary actions.
To make the hiring process more accountable, the bill would require job applicants to pass a test before they could be interviewed for a job. If they are hired, they would have to disclose any immediate family members who are state employees.
All letters of recommendation would be made public if the individual is hired. While all recommendations would have to be made in writing, the bill carries no specific sanctions for violators, although they could still be subject to state ethics laws.
Under the bill, the probation commissioner no longer would have sole hiring authority.
Ireland said he supports keeping the department under the umbrella of the court system, saying judges rely on probation officers to help prevent former inmates from reoffending.
Ireland also defended his unusual decision to wade into a policy dispute between the legislative and executive branches. He said he and the other SJC justices discussed the situation and decided they should be part of the process.
“We thought if there was going to be legislation, we wanted to have a voice in the shaping of that legislation,” said Ireland, who attended the Statehouse press conference and stood alongside DeLeo.
DeLeo said he hopes to get the bill though the public hearing process and to the floor of the House for a vote by mid-May.
He said he hadn’t had a chance to discuss the bill yet with Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth.
Patrick already has filed his own bill, the centerpiece of which is his proposal to merge the Probation Department and parole board.
Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan told lawmakers last month that merging the two into a new Department of Re-entry and Community Supervision would guarantee that all former inmates are released to the supervision of a single state agency.
Thirty-seven other states have combined the two functions, she said.
Former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, chosen by the SJC to lead a task force to review hiring practices in the court system and Probation Department, said the state’s justice system is too important not to have professional management.
“Not to have that run as efficiently and effectively as you can by professional managers is a mistake,” Harshbarger said. “Also it frees up judges to do what they do best, which is to exercise the judicial function.”
The bill also won the support of Massachusetts Bar Association Chief Legal Counsel Martin Healy who called the creation of a civilian court administration long overdue.
The bill stems from an investigative report commissioned by the SJC last year 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.