If You Agree with Senator Moynihan, You'll Like This New Judicial Reorg Law

Friday, August 5, 2011

In the past week, both branches of the Massachusetts legislature enacted, and the governor signed into law, House Bill 3644, an act "relative to the reorganization of the judicial system of the Commonwealth."

A response to a 2010 special investigation and report that found "systemic abuse and corruption" in the hiring and promotion practices of the Massachusetts Probation Department, H.B. 3644 is a truly serious effort at reform.

As long as H.B. 3644 is on the books, legislators will never again be able to use the Probation Department as a personal hiring service for their relatives, political supporters and constituents.

And no citizen with a directionless 20-something son or daughter will be able to secure a lifetime job in Probation for the kid simply because that citizen's state representative or senator happens to be in a position where he exercises considerable influence over the Probation Department's budget.

The new law stipulates that every applicant for the job of probation officer shall pass a written application that tests his/her "knowledge, skills and abilities which can be objectively and reliably measured and which are required to perform the duties of the position of probation officer."

Only after passing that test will a probation officer candidate be officially considered for hiring, a process that will involve, one, an "inquiry into and review of the applicant's education, prior work history and other accomplishments to ensure that the applicant is well suited for the culture of the organization and will further the organization's stated goals;" two, "behaviorally-based interviews;" and, three, "candidate assessments, including case study, presentation and writing assessments, provided, however, that the candidate assessments shall focus on the specific requirements of the position."

Job recommendations for probation officer candidates will not receive any consideration whatsoever until the candidates have successfully completed this process. And all recommendations given to candidates will be available for review by the public. The same goes for any recommendations made for Probation Department employees who seek promotions.

H.B. 3644 further requires that all applicants for jobs within the three branches of state government, not just the judicial branch, must submit in writing the names of all immediate family members who are state employees. For those who are hired, this information will be permanently available to the public.

The legislature faced a huge challenge in the wake of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team investigation into Probation Department hiring and promoting, and the resulting investigation by the special counsel appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court, Attorney Paul Ware: Restore public trust in the department, and thereby improve the standing of the legislature itself, which had definitely been diminished by these revelations.

H.B. 3644 is a worthy response to that challenge because it sets new professional standards for probation officers and other court personnel and makes the hiring and promition processes transparent.

In the sense intended by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who always asserted that "secrecy is for losers," one could say that this bill aims to guarantee that only winners secure these important jobs in the Probation Department.

Give the legislature and governor credit for honoring the spirit of Senator Moynihan, God rest his soul.

Most legislators, I am sure, are pleased that they have reformed the court system and its subsidiary, Probation, in this way -- and also pleased that they have mainly taken themselves off the hook for getting some not especially qualified people into the system. Now, when somebody calls, hoping to get their mediocre (or worse) relative a job there, legislators can honestly respond, "Sorry. The law says I can't stick my nose into this. There's very little I can do."

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