Lowell Sun: Greater Lowell lawmakers question proposed Probation Dept. reforms

February 3, 2011
By Chris Camire

BOSTON — Area lawmakers are raising questions about several reforms proposed in a new report on the troubled Probation Department.

The report, published Tuesday by a bipartisan state commission, recommends that job applicants take a “merit-based exam” and that job recommendations made by legislators possibly become public record.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, would like to see tougher restrictions placed on who legislators can recommend for jobs than what the report proposes. Eldridge recently filed a bill that would allow lawmakers to only recommend people for state jobs who they have worked with for more than a year.

“It just speaks to one of the things that is a problem with the Probation Department,” said Eldridge. “You may have a constituent that calls you for a job recommendation that you don’t know, but because they gave you a campaign contribution, they expect a recommendation.”

Others think legislators should not be allowed to write a recommendation for any applicant seeking a state job.

“Even if they don’t intend to exert influence, there is a perception that there could be undue influence,” said state Rep. Sheila Harrington, R-Groton. “If it were me, personally, I wouldn’t do it.”

The nine-member commission that wrote the report was put together by Gov. Deval Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray to reduce the influence lawmakers have on hiring within probation.

A report issued in November by independent counsel Paul Ware found that patronage was a serious problem in the Probation Department, with many state lawmakers writing recommendations for people who ended up being hired there.

DeLeo, who has been criticized himself for helping to get people jobs in the department, said in a statement that the report addresses his “primary goal of making sure hiring at probation is not unduly influenced by recommendations.”

“The report demonstrates that there is still no unanimity on where the Probation Department should be placed in the long term,” DeLeo added.

The report does not, for example, take a position on Patrick’s proposal to move the Probation Department under the executive branch and consolidate it with parole operations. Patrick has said merging parole and probation would improve oversight of convicts.

State Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, said she does not see a “compelling need” to merge the departments.

“I think the purpose and functions are quite different,” said Donoghue.

Donoghue is open to possibly moving probation under the governor’s control, but added that there is merit to keeping in with the judiciary.

“It is important that they have strong working relationships,” she said. “What we had was a completely dysfunctional system. It’s less important to me if it’s in the judiciary or executive branch. What’s most important is that we’re addressing the systemic problems within probation.”

Despite criticism of the report, lawmakers said they are eager to reach an agreement on some kind of reform geared toward creating more transparency within probation.

“The biggest thing we have to keep pushing for is to make sure that the most qualified people are being hired and not the ones that may know someone,” said state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover. “That has to be the overriding objective.”

State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan questions requiring what she described as “lower-level positions” in the Probation Department, such as case managers, being subject to a merit-based exam.

“What if a qualified applicant didn’t score so high on the exam?” said Flanagan, D-Leominster.

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