Pamerson Ifill, the state’s new probation commissioner, is the first Black man to fill his position. Angelo Gomez, the new head of parole officers, is also the first person of color to hold his job.

Now the two state officials — who say they grew up on the other side of law enforcement — want to change the departments that have long been seen by many as part of state-funded punishment.

Ifill and Gomez say they are trying to move toward a model of customer service for probation and parole that can help people succeed in their communities rather than incarcerate them for failing.

“Probation is at a sort of a crossroad. We have this intersectional point,” Ifill told GBH News recently. “There was a time we used to hire a lot of people who were law-enforcement-driven. We’re more into hiring people that are around behavioral health and mental health and all of the other aspects of work.”

Gomez says he sees his agency the same way: “Keeping people in the community is the goal. We’re a re-entry organization. We’re not a police organization.”

For the tens of thousands of people on probation and parole in Massachusetts, the face of what the state often calls “community corrections” may be changing. People often get sentenced to probation instead of incarceration, but in some cases they are sentenced to a prison term with a probation period to follow. Parole applies to people who have been allowed to leave prison early and serve the remainder of their sentence at home.

Over the past two years, the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting has spoken with dozens of people on probation or parole for its series “Life After Prison.” People often describe the systems as an extension of their punishment — leaving them not incarcerated, but under constant observation, as the state waits for them to make a mistake. It’s often described as a system of, “trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em.”

The state for several years has said it’s wanted to change this. Since Ifill took office last fall, data appears to show he is having an impact.

Taking aim at ‘technical violations’

In January 2024, 51 people in Massachusetts facing the most serious charges were sent back to Superior Court with what are called “technical violations” of their probation — that is, they were not facing a new criminal charge. That’s down from 88 in January 2023 and the lowest monthly total in years. It was the first month since May 2015 that there were fewer violations issued for non-criminal than criminal conduct — except for April and May 2020 when probation was in a pandemic-induced freeze.

Technical violations include a wide range of things such as losing a job, failing to maintain stable housing or failing a drug test.

Ifill says he is trying to drive down the number of non-criminal violations by having probation officers use more “graduated sanctions” that provide support for people displaying bad behaviors rather than going straight to declaring a probation violation when somebody strays.

“Let's address the behavior,” he said. If a person on probation has not reported for a mandatory check-in, he said, “Don't issue a violation. Find out why they’re not reporting. Go visit them at home. Go visit them at work, or visit them at school.”

Ifill wants probation to be seen as a customer-service organization.

“At the heart of all of this,” he said, “is how can we be a greater resource as a court system versus this perception of just punishment.”

It’s a shift in approach that could change the lives of many trying to make it on the outside. State data indicates there are about 50,000 people being supervised by probation and about 1,300 people on parole. A couple hundred people are on both parole and probation, which creates an extra level of complication as the two agencies try to coordinate their supervision.

Gomez was promoted to supervisor of parole field services in September, a job that puts him in charge of the state’s parole officers. He says he knows that there are some in prison who choose to serve out the entirety of their sentence behind bars because they don’t want to deal with a parole officer on the outside.

“I would love to get to the point where, you know, you’re in custody and you say, ‘I want to take parole because they’re going to help us,’” he said. “That’s the vision.”

To make this happen, Gomez says he is trying to make the parole service better reflect the community it serves. “When I started here, there was me and two other Latinos.” By adding a language proficiency to his job postings, he has been able to hire more Latinos, and there are now a total of 7 out of about 74 parole officers.

There’s no current data to show if Gomez’s efforts have yet made a difference. But the most recent parole data, from 2022, shows changes may be underway. In 2018, 534 people had their parole revoked, and nearly 90% of those were for technical or “non-arrest” violations. In 2022, the last year for which data is available, parole officers filed 321 revocations, and just under 80% were technical.

Reimagining a system ‘not designed to help’

People who work with returning citizens in Massachusetts applaud the efforts of the two agencies — but say there is a long way to go before their clients see probation or parole as a place to go for assistance.

Kamal Oliver, the re-entry services coordinator at a Boston-based anti-violence organization called the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, said he recognizes that there are good probation and parole officers who care about the success of the people they are supervising. But he says that is not how the system is designed.

“It’s not designed to help,” he said. “It’s designed to basically watch you and catch you up and send you back.”

It’s about “not the one-size-fits-all approach to probation and parole, but also looking at the individual needs. And that supports the community. That promotes public safety.”
Arnie Stewart, the deputy chief counsel for the state’s public defender program

Oliver served an eight-year prison sentence and came home in 2018 with a three-year probation sentence. About halfway through his probation, he says he petitioned a judge to reduce his term because he was doing well. He had a job, he was doing a lot of community events and he was not in any trouble.

“They pretty much used that — my argument, my same argument — against me to say, ‘You’re doing so well on it. Why would we take you off of it?’” Oliver said the judge told him that in order to have his probation term reduced, he would have to “prove that it’s a hindrance in your life somehow.”

Oliver says this reasoning misses the point that reporting to a probation officer, being constantly under scrutiny and having to live under a series of court-imposed restrictions is a hindrance by definition.

Nevertheless, he says he applauds the probation and parole chiefs for trying to focus on making the process more humane, and improving interactions between the officers and the people they supervise. Just more empathy will reduce recidivism, he said.

“It’s a good start,” Oliver said, “because the way a probation officer treats the person that they’re supervising has a big impact on how they interact with the rest of the world.”

Arnie Stewart, the deputy chief counsel for the state’s public defender program, also applauded what she sees as changes in the two agencies. “There’s supervision and then there’s support,” Stewart said, “and they maybe can exist in the same space ... but I think you can just let go of the supervision, but still provide support.”

Stewart said the key is to treat people on probation and parole as individuals, not as a class of defendants. “I think that’s what this is about,” she said, “not the one-size-fits-all approach to probation and parole, but also looking at the individual needs. And that supports the community. That promotes public safety.”

She says she has begun to see a difference in how probation is approaching its mission. “I think they’re making it a value — an organizational value. And when you have that, I think change is absolutely possible.”

What new leaders are coming into

Some of the change in probation and parole is a long-term policy change that has been churning through the state for several years.

In late 2021, Ifill's predecessor, Ed Dolan, told a legislative hearing that he was trying to focus more on providing services to people serving sentences in the community and less on incarcerating people for violating their probation conditions. Probation, he said, was “trying to build that affirmative service network so that we’re working with people so they won’t come back. And you do that by solving issues.”

But throughout the rest of Dolan’s tenure — he retired in April 2023 — probation violation statistics continued to tell the same story they have told for years: Every month, defendants were far more likely to be charged with violating a technical condition of their probation than with committing a new crime.

Gov. Maura Healey said in a statement to GBH News that it’s been long known that people in the corrections system struggle to to move ahead. “That’s why we’ve prioritized a compassionate approach to probation and parole that promotes public safety and supports victims while also increasing investments in re-entry, job training and educational programs,” she said.

Part of the change is also embodied in the hiring of Ifill and Gomez.

Both worked their way up through their respective departments for many years.

Gomez says when he was growing up, his family lived in the Puerto Rican housing projects of Boston’s South End and neither of his parents went past a grade-school education. He describes himself as “someone (a) who’s Latino but (b) has had some not good experiences, both with policing and customer service from organizations that are meant to do that. I bring that with me, and then I bring a culture of like, ‘How can we work with that?’”

Ifill — who was raised in Barbados and ran away from home as a teenager — says this kind of representation at the top level of their organizations will make a huge difference in how people are treated.

“I think we find ourselves at this unique crossroad in intersectionality,” Ifill said. “We know that we're going to be watched a little closely, but we also know that we have opportunities to bring different lived perspectives. [Gomez has] had just as much of a juvenile delinquent past as I have. And so we are coming in here informed about the possibility of hope and change.”