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Governor signs court reform law

But Patrick plans to push for Probation Dept. oversight

Governor Deval Patrick said he will push for more changes. Governor Deval Patrick said he will push for more changes.
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / August 5, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick yesterday signed into law a court reform measure that aims to eliminate patronage in the Probation Department, but he signaled that he would continue to push for more systematic changes, which were already rebuffed by the two other branches of government.

“I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge and remind you that there is more work to be done,’’ Patrick wrote in a signing statement he issued with the new law yesterday. “The reforms required by this bill are important steps forward, but they alone do not create a modern, more accountable Probation Department.’’

In his letter, the governor continued his push to absorb the Probation Department, which remains under the judiciary‘s control, into his administration. “I still believe that centralizing parole and probation in a unified agency, as is done in more than 25 states, will make the departments more accountable, improve supervision and public safety, and be more cost-effective than the current bifurcated system,’’ Patrick wrote.

“I also believe that we must stop the costly and ineffective practice of warehousing nonviolent drug offenders, rather than favoring treatment.’’

The court reform measure was prompted by a 2010 Globe Spotlight report that found the Probation Department to be a haven for patronage hires and by a subsequent independent report that found the probation commissioner ran the department as a job agency for friends and family members of lawmakers, who in return generously funded his budget.

The three branches of government have repeatedly sparred over the issue in recent months, as legislators, embarrassed by exposure of their deep involvement in the Probation Department, took concerted steps to repair public perceptions.

But the governor continued to try to grab control of the department in an effort to create clear oversight.

In his letter yesterday, Patrick chided the state’s judges, saying he was “curious to see’’ them supporting the bill, which he says calls for eight new administrative jobs, in light of their concerns about hiring.

Last month, judges slammed the governor and the Legislature for budget cuts they said were so severe that they would be forced to lay off staff and shut down courthouses.

“At the same time, the court has recently called for a moratorium on judicial appointments as necessary to save the jobs of the current court personnel,’’ Patrick wrote in his signing statement. “I will listen with interest as the justices reconcile their positions.’’

Yesterday, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray issued a joint statement returning the governor’s volley, saying the Legislature had listened to all sides of the argument and concluded “that the most efficient place for probation to be is with the judiciary.’’

“In fact, the only advocate for merging parole and probation into one agency under the control of the executive branch was the governor,’’ they wrote.

They also said that, with the exception of the one new court administrator who will oversee hiring, the employees would come from the judiciary’s current rolls and budget.

“The deputy court administrators “do not represent new positions,’’ they wrote. “They already exist in each department of the Trial Court. The legislation standardizes their duties and responsibilities and streamlines their reporting authority.’’

The new law calls for a court administrator to approve all hiring, , attending to a concern that the commissioner had unilateral control that was exploited by his friends in the Legislature.

The law also creates a standard hiring process for all court and probation officers and requires applicants to meet minimum qualifications to get jobs, rather than being referred by legislators.

And it makes letters of recommendation from lawmakers part of the public record.

“It truly is the most significant piece of court reform legislation we’ve seen in the last few decades,’’ Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said yesterday. For years, task forces examining the courts have been recommending that the judiciary hire a court administrator, he said.

The association also disagrees with the governor about which branch should manage probation, saying that judges who work with probation officers on a daily basis should oversee their department.

“I think that issue has for now been decided,’’ Healy said. “The governor signed the bill. The bill maintains the probation office within the judicial branch.’’

The judges did not immediately issue a response to the governor.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.