Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Massachusetts House passes court reorganization and probation reform legislation

In an unusual moment of unanimity, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed legislation 152-0 to reorganize the courts and restore public trust in the state’s Probation Department.

“This major reform legislation will improve upon an already strong court system by facilitating a more efficient and cost-effective infrastructure for the disposition of justice,” House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said. “Not only does this bill create a civilian administrator to oversee the business aspects of the Trial Court, but it also adds needed transparency to the hiring and promotion practices at the Department of Probation. By passing this reorganization bill, the House has committed to bring a more transparent, efficient system of justice to the people of Massachusetts.”

The subcommittee that worked to draft this bill rejected the idea of moving Department of Probation employees into the civil service system. I agree with this assessment because, as rigorous as the civil service hiring process is, it is very difficult to remove someone for cause. Many towns and cities have moved positions out of civil service to promote hiring and firing flexibility, including the Town of Sandwich for its chief of police.

Following the recommendation of the Monan Commission Report, the bill creates an Office of Court Management and a Chief Justice of the Trial Court to divide the responsibilities currently held by the Chief Justice for Administration and Management.

The Chief Justice of the Trial Court will serve as the judicial head of the Trial Court, responsible for planning, policy, assigning judges, judicial discipline, and all other inherently judicial functions.

Under the legislation, the civilian Court Administrator will be responsible for the general administration of the Trial Court, including reviewing and approving the hiring of non-judicial employees, administering appropriations and expenditures, negotiating contracts and leases, and any other inherently non-judicial administrative functions.

The Court Administrator will also be required to identify core administrative functions and create cost savings and efficiencies by consolidating certain administrative activities of the various departments of the Trial Court. The Court Administrator will also be charged with implementing a hiring model and applicant tracking tool for all employment within the Trial Court.

The Chief Justices of the various departments of the Trial Court will continue their current appointments and will be responsible for core judicial functions.

The bill also reforms hiring and promotion practices in the Department of Probation which, according to the legislation, will remain in the judicial branch. This parts ways from the Governor’s preference, which was to move Probation into the executive branch.

An objective entrance exam will be established for the hiring and promotion of all probation and court officers. Successfully passing the exam will enable candidates to advance to the interview stage, provided that they meet all other requirements for the position.

Candidates who pass the exam and meet all other requirements will then be subject to a rigorous background review and interview process, which will be based on best practices recommended by the Harshbarger Commission on Probation Department Hiring.

Furthermore, the bill removes unilateral hiring power from the Commissioner of Probation, instead making hiring within the Probation Department subject to the approval of the Court Administrator.

The bill also adds needed transparency to hiring and promotion practices across all state agencies by requiring recommendations offered on behalf of any applicant to be made in writing and shielded from hiring authorities until the final round of the interview process.

In addition, applicants for employment within the executive, legislative, and judicial branches will have to disclose the names of all immediate family members who are state employees. This information will be made public for successful applicants.

Finally, to continue the ongoing reform effort at the Probation Department, the bill establishes an Advisory Board to help craft additional improvements within the department. The board will be comprised of seven members with expertise in the fields of criminal justice, public policy, human resources and management.

The bill was shipped over to the Senate where it is expected to be acted upon this month.

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