Globe Editorial

Oust O’Brien, but also overhaul his broken probation agency

July 28, 2010

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THE STATE LEGISLATURE created a patronage monster in Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien. O’Brien, in turn, has eroded his agency’s ability to supervise 92,000 offenders. Fixing the problem will require not only O’Brien’s removal, but also an overhaul of an agency larded with make-work positions and ineffective programs.

In May, the Globe Spotlight Team reported that O’Brien had hired or promoted at least 250 politically-wired job applicants. On Sunday, the Spotlight Team showed how badly politics and patronage had undermined the agency’s work day in and day out. To justify a bloated budget, the secretive Probation Department has exaggerated its workload since O’Brien was appointed in 1998. The extra money has not produced good results. Even O’Brien’s much-touted Office of Community Corrections centers, where probationers go for drug testing and counseling, are seen by other law enforcement agencies as unhelpful.

The patronage system depends on the fiction that well-connected applicants still must possess the necessary skills to get hired. Yet the 2,200-employee agency is riddled with waste, which can only discourage those employees with a genuine commitment to reforming criminal offenders. O’Brien significantly overstaffed the section of the department monitoring offenders with electronic bracelets. Yet when a convicted rapist allegedly removed his electronic tracking device and forced his way into a home to rape again, probation monitors didn’t pick up a phone and alert police to the offender’s location.

Other times, the only victim is the taxpayer. That’s the case in the sluggish Belchertown court, where the probation staff has grown from two to 11 under O’Brien, including several employees with connections to state Representative Thomas Petrolati of Ludlow.

Lawmakers have been protecting the probation commissioner for as long as they have been using the department as a job bank for relatives and supporters. Earlier this month, even, lawmakers tried to insulate O’Brien from an amendment that would establish a five-year term for the commissioner of probation.

But the racket may finally be ending. In May, O’Brien was placed on administrative leave by the Trial Court, and an independent investigator is reviewing hiring practices at the agency. With O’Brien on ice, acting administrator Ronald Corbett has been able to compile accurate data on the number of probationers and stitch together broken relationships with other public safety agencies. Corbett, the executive director of the Supreme Judicial Court, would be a good fit to restore integrity to the department.

But first, O’Brien needs to go. If he won’t resign, the public can only hope that the current investigation reveals ample grounds to remove him for cause.

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