Mark S. Coven

At its best, Probation keeps us safe

By Mark S. Coven
August 14, 2010

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IT WAS close to 6 p.m. after a day of probation violation hearings. I wandered through the lobby and found probation officers seeing probationers after hours so that they did not have to leave their jobs during the day. Other probation officers escorted probationers into the bathroom to supervise a random urine screen to ensure that they were remaining free of drugs and alcohol. One officer was leaving to go to a probationer’s home and install an electronic monitoring device and bracelet to enforce an order of home confinement.

What has been lost in recent press reports about patronage at the probation department is what probation is really about and how it serves to protect our communities, as well as provide a cost-effective system of punishment, rehabilitation, and community supervision. At the Quincy District Court, the probation staff supervise 700 people who remain in our communities and who otherwise might be committed to the House of Correction, as well as another 600 people who were found guilty of driving while under the influence of alcohol.

The concept of probation is to allow an offender a period of conditional liberty, where the offender is expected to assume personal responsibility for their actions, with active monitoring by a probation officer and immediate accountability where there is a violation of the terms of probation. It allows the person to remain in the community, working and remaining with their families, as an alternative to being sentenced to the House of Correction. When done appropriately, probation allows the offenders the chance to redeem their lives, prevents overcrowding at the state and county correctional institutions, and saves the taxpayers of Massachusetts thousands of dollars from the cost of incarceration.

A probation officer must combine the best attributes of a law enforcement officer, prosecutor, and social worker. On a recent typical day for the probation staff, a probationer was back at court for breaking the terms of his home confinement. A supervising probation officer prosecuted a hearing where the offender was on probation for breaking and entering and was back in court for another B&E. He was found to have committed the new offense, his probation was revoked, and he was sentenced to the House of Correction.

In the midst of these hearings, the chief probation officer brought into court a 40-year-old woman who was nodding out at her substance abuse classes at the community correction center after abusing her prescribed medications. She was examined by our court clinician and committed to the Women’s Addiction Treatment Center in New Bedford for 30 days of abuse treatment. Next, a 20-year-old young man was brought back before the court because he continually tested positive for opiates. He told me that he has been addicted to heroin since he was 16. He was held in custody for consideration for our specialized drug court.

A probationer was in custody after being arrested for allegedly beating and attempting to strangle his girlfriend with a telephone cord. The offender was on probation for an earlier incident of domestic violence with the same victim. He was sentenced. Other probationers were brought back before the court for failing to complete the alcohol education program assigned for operating under the influence of alcohol, for testing positive to drugs or alcohol, violations of a home confinement, or for failing to attend their assigned treatment programs. Over 50 probation violation hearings were conducted that day.

The probation staff partner with local law enforcement as well as local treatment providers. Probation officers, as part of their responsibilities, make unannounced visits to people’s homes at night and on weekends and are not provided safety vests and may or not be accompanied by a police officer. They put themselves in harm’s way in order to accomplish the goals of community supervision and to protect the communities where offenders reside.

We must not lose sight that it is these professionals who are keeping our communities safe, assist in rehabilitating the lives of scores of people, and save limited resources of the Commonwealth by allowing criminal offenders to remain out of prison and in the community as productive members of society.

Mark S. Coven is the first justice of the Quincy District Court.