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FILLING TOP JOBS

Governor, judiciary are urged to name replacements swiftly

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick has promised to make restoring credibility in the state parole and probation systems one of his first priorities this year. But as he and other state leaders try to fix them, they confront a leadership void at the two agencies charged with ensuring that criminals make a safe transition back into society.

It is unclear exactly how Patrick’s move to oust top Parole Board members yesterday, in addition to the prior shake-up at the Probation Department, will affect the cases of the many convicts or exconvicts under their jurisdiction.

But lawyers and others who deal with the criminal justice system say it is essential that the governor and the judiciary move swiftly to find credible replacements for those who have resigned or who have been fired or suspended.

“There’s a certain learning curve that has to happen,’’ said Norman S. Zalkind, a criminal defense lawyer for more than 40 years.

Zalkind said that even lawyers who deal regularly with parole and probation rely on the agencies’ expertise to navigate some of the Byzantine rules, so they can make sure those who are eligible get released on time and with appropriate assistance and supervision.

“Obviously, there’s a morale issue’’ with lower-level employees, Zalkind said. “A lot of these jobs take a lot of energy. You’re dealing with poor people. You’re dealing with people who have a lot of problems.’’

Patrick said yesterday that five of the Parole Board’s seven members had resigned, after a state review criticized the board’s 2008 decision to release Domenic Cinelli, who killed a Woburn police officer Dec. 26. Patrick also said that several top administrators had resigned, been suspended, or been told the state has begun efforts to fire them.

Previously, four top officials in the Probation Department were put on paid leave following a damning report by an independent counsel about patronage, fraud, and abuse at the agency. Among them was Commissioner John J. O’Brien, who then resigned Dec. 31.

Yesterday’s loss of five Parole Board members at one time may create specific problems for the state in meeting the legal requirement that inmates with life sentences receive parole hearings within 60 days of their eligibility. The board now has only two active members, and the law requires at least four members for such hearings, said Patricia Garin, a defense lawyer with knowledge of the parole process. Garin said she cannot recall a time when there were more than two simultaneous vacancies.

There is also concern that the resignations could have a chilling effect on future Parole Board members. “To just eliminate all members like this sets up a very bad situation for future Parole Board members who have to make these kinds of decisions,’’ said Brian A. Callery, a former board chairman.

“This job is a risky one,’’ Callery added. “You’re trying to predict future behavior. This will have a dramatic effect on the parole rate.’’

Despite those concerns, many political and legal players said Patrick needed to clean house, given the problems with parole that were highlighted by release of Cinelli, a career criminal who had received three life sentences.

“It’ll slow down the process for parole; that’s a good thing until people can take a step back and put systems in place and people in place,’’ said Thomas F. Reilly, a former attorney general and former political rival of Patrick’s. “Whatever [the] transitional problems, and there will be some key people not in place for the time being, I think that’s a worthwhile price to pay for sending a very strong message that this can’t be tolerated.’’

State Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who has cochaired the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee since 2002, said neither parole nor probation should have short-term problems while they seek new leaders. The people who work at the agencies on the front lines know how to do their jobs.

“The business of the court went on today; it will go on tomorrow,’’ he said.

The bigger issues are longer term, O’Flaherty said, requiring leaders at the top who can make sound policy decisions and coordinate with the judiciary on reintegrating criminals into society, he said.

Frank Phillips of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.