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Corbett to lead troubled agency

Veteran employee to serve 2 years as probation chief

By Marcella Bombardieri and Scott Allen
Globe Staff / January 22, 2011

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The state’s top administrative judge appointed Ronald P. Corbett Jr. yesterday to a two-year term as commissioner of the Probation Department, replacing John J. O’Brien, who resigned on New Year’s Eve amid charges that he had built a fraudulent hiring and promotion system at the 2,200-employee agency.

Corbett, 59, has served as the agency’s acting administrator since O’Brien was suspended last May and has won accolades for his early efforts to overhaul rigged hiring, dishonest recordkeeping, and outdated approaches to reforming offenders.

Corbett’s term is limited to two years because Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan said that while he believes the department needs short-term stability, he intends to conduct a wider search before filling the full five-year term for a probation commissioner.

O’Brien had held an unlimited term of office and could only be removed for cause, but recent legislation set a limit to the commissioner’s term.

“Ron Corbett brings a depth of knowledge on probation best practices, along with strong management experience and extensive partnerships in the criminal justice community to strengthen probation at this challenging time,’’ Mulligan said in a statement. “We are very fortunate to have a leader of this caliber who can work collaboratively with the executive branch and provide direction to the many hard-working probation officers across the state.’’

After working his way up from a line probation officer over almost two decades, Corbett served as deputy commissioner of probation from 1993 to 2000, a period when Massachusetts was considered a national model in helping criminals become law-abiding citizens.

In some sense, Corbett is now turning back the clock; he was seen as the front-runner for the commissioner’s job that O’Brien won in late 1997. That year, Corbett was named probation executive of the year by the National Association of Probation Executives, and he was editing the journal of the American Probation and Parole Association. He is a Harvard graduate with a doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts.

But Mulligan’s predecessor, John J. Irwin, Jr., reduced the education requirements for the job, records indicate. That allowed Irwin to appoint O’Brien, a protégé of House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, who had no advanced degree. After O’Brien became commissioner in early 1998, jobs and promotions increasingly went to people with political connections even when there was evidence they were unqualified, the Globe Spotlight Team found, while much of the core work of the department languished.

Corbett went on to serve as executive director of the Supreme Judicial Court, a post from which he is now stepping down. He also teaches criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“I welcome the opportunity to restore probation to administrative excellence and credibility throughout the court system and in the eyes of the public,’’ Corbett said in a statement.

Among the priorities he cited are establishing accountability and performance measurement, gathering accurate data, building relationships with other parts of the criminal justice system, and merit-based hiring.

Corbett will probably have the opportunity to rebuild the management ranks previously filled by O’Brien loyalists. His second in command, Elizabeth V. Tavares, resigned this week, while two other top officials are on paid leave and face possible termination in coming weeks.

Corbett technically will serve until a full-term commissioner is named.

Margaret Thompson — president of Local 229 of the National Association of Government Employees, which represents nearly a thousand probation officers — hailed Corbett’s appointment and said she hoped it would bring stability.

Corbett answers e-mails he receives from rank-and-file probation officers, Thompson noted, and he is moving forward on changes such as testing a new method to determine the danger posed by each probationer. The department has been using a 1980’s-vintage risk-assessment tool that labeled as dangerous three times as many offenders as modern, scientifically tested measurements generally find.

“He’s been accessible, responsive, and interested,’’ Thompson said. “I admire the steps he’s taking to bring us into this century.’’

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com; Allen at allen@globe.com.