BOSTON (SHNS) – A state program aimed at reminding defendants about upcoming court appearances is “already beginning to pay dividends” since the Massachusetts Probation Service implemented it last fall, agency leaders told lawmakers Wednesday as a panel started exploring ways to reduce barriers that people of color face in the probation system.
Following the passage of a criminal justice reform law in 2018, the probation agency has expanded its efforts to reduce unnecessary pre-trial detentions and help residents involved in legal proceedings avoid accidentally missing court dates, Deputy Commissioner of Pre-Trial Services Pamerson Ifill said.
There are about 86,000 people under probation supervision in Massachusetts. Of that number, about 81 percent are men and 19 percent are women. Probation officers are assigned to help people serving a probation sentence to live and work in the community, and to be with family and friends, as an alternative to incarceration.
The 2018 law required the Probation Service to “provide notifications and reminders” to defendants. Since launching a system on Nov. 10, the service has sent more than 60,000 text message alerts about upcoming court dates, leading to a decline in defendants failing to appear, according to Ifill.
“That is already beginning to pay dividends as a result of the legislation,” he said.
More than 35 percent of those who fail to appear for ordered court dates nationally do so because they forgot, Ifill said, which creates further legal headaches and costs for many of them.
Massachusetts had a failure to appear rate of 12.6 percent in the most recent data, Ifill said.
“Compared nationally, that’s one of the best failure to appear rates in the country, but what we’re looking to do is reduce that further because it doesn’t always tell the story,” he said. “We have some of our urban courts that have higher failure to appear rates.”
Ifill was one of several officials at the Probation Service who outlined the agency’s mission and recent initiatives at the first virtual meeting of a new commission to study structural racism in the probation process, building on steps already taken in the wake of the 2018 criminal justice reform law.
The police reform law Gov. Charlie Baker signed Dec. 31 convened several commissions to study criminal justice-adjacent areas, including facial recognition software and qualified immunity.
The Commission on Structural Racism in the Massachusetts Probation Service, helmed by Acton Democrat Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Andover Democrat Rep. Tram Nguyen, faces a statutory charge to submit a report by Sept. 30 with any recommendations and draft legislation for addressing disparities that communities of color face.
Eldridge said Wednesday that, while working on the 2018 law, he heard “many stories from people on probation, in the prison system, that really spoke about a lot of the challenges of probation.”
Lawmakers must now “make sure there’s a level playing field and that we combat systemic racism that is in every single institution in our state government,” he said.
Commission members flagged several areas they want to target for additional investigation and conversation. Several lawmakers stressed that they want to see a detailed breakdown of court system outcomes by race or ethnicity, which butted up against digital infrastructure limitations in the existing MassCourts system.
The Probation Service is working to pursue a modern case management system, officials said, and in the meantime, its Deputy Commissioner of Programs Michael Coelho said his team would produce some analysis based on a selected sample of cases.
“You’ll still get a good picture of what’s going right and what’s going wrong,” he said.
Rep. Bud Williams, a Springfield Democrat, said one of his main reform priorities is hiring more diverse probation staff so that the criminal justice system is culturally competent and better understands the lived experiences of people of color.
The Probation Service’s workforce, which includes more than 1,700 employees across 105 local-level probation offices, is about 30 percent non-white and 67 percent female, according to figures presented Wednesday.
Williams, who is Black, praised the agency for its success at diversifying its workforce but warned that it remains “white top-heavy.”
“You’ve come light years ahead of where we were 20, 25 years ago. I would absolutely say that. We’re on a fast trajectory here, but we’ve got to move a lot faster,” Williams said. “I still receive the phone calls. They do the hiring in the Trial Courts or the Superior Courts. Somehow, folks who look like me just don’t have an opportunity, or they have an opportunity, but they don’t get selected.”
Massachusetts Probation Service Commissioner Edward Dolan replied that his team had “done a lot of work, but we know we have a lot of work to do.”
“We’re not defensive about this,” he said about the panel’s work. “We’re open, and if people have ideas, we’re happy to adopt them. If people want to push us or have criticisms, we’re happy to hear it. If we have problems, we want to fix them.”