Two recent stories have appeared in the Boston newspapers about the probation department in the state courts of Massachusetts. One story, in a Globe series, exhaustively detailed the extent to which probation officers are creatures of a fairly blatant patronage system. Apparently the one essential credential that qualifies someone to become a probation officer is an acquaintance (preferably of the campaign contribution type) with a powerful state legislator or other politically connected person. Very recently there was a second story in the Herald that included the shocking information that probation officers in Massachusetts take an excessive number of sick days. It occurs to me that these two stories may be related.
I think the “absurd” sick day situation is caused by a pervasive belief among probation officers that their work is so pointless and/or routine that any person can do it and anyone can fill in for them on any given day without consequence. Why would they believe this? They would believe this because, as noted above, the only fixed qualification for the job is a political patron. This naturally leads probation officers to believe that any joker can do their job on any given day.
I am also sure that the way Massachusetts has selected its probation officers has led to hiring many people who lack any particular appetite for the work that probation officers do. Instead, many current probation officers undoubtedly chose this career path based on the mix of (very manageable) work responsibilities, salary and benefits.
In these ways, the patronage at the probation department has led to its demoralization.
What to do, what to do?
One idea is to demand that applicants for the job of probation officer have some relevant professional credentials. And since probation officers are essentially engaged in a form of coercive social work, I would propose that some kind social work credential be demanded of said applicants. Naturally current probation officers would have to be “grandfathered in” and that is probably unfortunate in some cases. Still, over time, requiring a relevant degree or license of probation officers will have the effect of virtually ending the current patronage system. After all, who has time to go to social work school and pick up John O’Brien’s dry cleaning? (Figuratively speaking.) This will not only insure that people doing the (actually quite important) work of supervising probationers have some inkling of how to do so, it will also create a more professional atmosphere in which coming to work and accomplishing something is generally expected, if not strictly required, of the employees of the department.
I am not sure of the typical starting salary of a holder of a MSW or similar social work credential. And I don’t know how that average starting salary compares to the starting salary of a probation officer. I suspect that probation officers do relatively well in that comparison, especially when all other benefits are factored in. Even if requiring an MSW would yield insufficient applicants, requiring some relevant credential, such as a LADAC or similar, would seem to be in order.
Because I regard this modest reform to be quite sensible and obviously beneficial, I have no expectation that it will ever occur. But I still think it is worth considering.