State Leaders Butt Heads On Probation

By Sarah Birnbaum

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Mar. 31, 2011

BOSTON — Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's top public safety official butted heads with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Wednesday over Patrick's proposal to overhaul the state's troubled probation department. The disagreement came at a State House hearing before the Joint Judiciary Committee.  

Patrick’s bill would merge the probation and parole departments into one agency under control of the executive branch. Right now, the judiciary oversees probation, while the governor oversees parole. At the hearing, Mary Beth Heffernan, the undersecretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety, said merging probation and parole would make the combined agencies more effective and save taxpayers some $14 million per year.

"The benefits are improved public safety, more efficiency with the scarce public resources we have for public safety and better accountability and transparency," Heffernan said.

Heffernan says that the probation department would become more open under executive branch control, because the executive branch is subject to the state’s Public Records Law, while the judiciary is not.

Chief Justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court, Roderick Ireland, acknowledged that the probation department needs reform. But he told the committee that many changes have been made in the months since an explosive report found rampant patronage and mismanagement in the department. Justice Ireland asked lawmakers to keep probation under the control of the judiciary.

"I strongly urge you not to compromise reform of the department by radically disrupting the organizational structure that has well served the people of the commonwealth for more than a century," Ireland said.

Ireland says that judges work closely with probation officers to craft sentences for offenders. And he says that if probation is removed from the judiciary, that relationship could be compromised.

Patrick’s bill now awaits an initial vote from the Joint Judiciary Committee.

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