“Resource allocation” – this dry, textbook phrase has recently come to life for the Massachusetts Probation Service (MPS), thanks to a pilot program that is redefining how its officers work in and out of the courtroom.

It’s no secret that MPS has struggled with staffing issues in recent years. Due to outdated job descriptions and budgetary constraints, MPS has historically opted to hire more-qualified Probation Officers (POs) instead of Associate Probation Officers (APOs).  As a result, POs are often burdened with high caseloads, while APOs have had limited functions and fewer opportunities for career advancement.    

To come up with a new staffing plan that would best benefit the courts, MPS decided to review the job descriptions and duties of its APOs. Next, Probation worked with consultants with in-depth experience in the Trial Court’s Strategic Planning initiatives. The team set four goals:

  1. Refine a new PO/APO model for statewide rollout
  2. Take advantage of the increasing knowledge and skill sets of POs and APOs
  3. Increase PO time for case management and field work
  4. Update MPS staffing mix to reach full staffing levels (as much as possible)

The group determined that by increasing the average ratio of APOs to POs in each court, the new staffing model could boost productivity and morale while cutting nearly nine percent, or more than $10.5 million, from its current staffing budget.

To achieve its goals, MPS expanded the APO role. As part of the pilot in four courts, APOs could review and sign conditions of probation. These tasks give APOs a first-hand view of sentencing and probation processes. At the discretion of the Chief Probation Officers (CPOs) participating in the pilot, APOs also eventually could supervise administrative cases, Driving Under the Influence of Liquor or DUIL cases, Level One cases (typically first or second DUI cases), and pre-trial cases. The overall goal was to increase public safety by easing POs’ workload to focus on the highest risk-need probationers.

“Pilots are a great way to test new ideas,” says Deputy Probation Commissioner Dianne Fasano. “We were able to pick ready-and-willing Chief Probation Officers at high volume courts with multiple daily sessions: the District Courts in New Bedford, Worcester, and Springfield, and Suffolk Superior.”

Courts participating in the pilot suggested that APOs would better understand the context of their roles if they worked at their courts for a few weeks first, before receiving “central,” standardized training. MPS agreed, and the pilot courts developed unique two-month training programs that include intensive job shadowing of seasoned POs.

Last month, MPS started the second phase of the pilot, which tests how APOs work with non-risk-need cases. As APOs gain more experience, they have started to take on additional responsibilities in New Bedford and Springfield District Courts outside of court sessions, under the supervision of their respective Chief Probation Officers, Donald Chausse and Terence O’Neil. Pilot participants in Worcester District Court and Suffolk County Superior Court plan to expanding the APO role at their courts in the near future.

With the pilot’s success, MPS is sharing data and best practices with its regional and statewide supervisors, offering a new way to utilize APOs as a cost-effective resource that helps the courts and boosts public safety.   

From the judges’ perspective, APOs can handle court sessions. “I sit in busy courts on a regular basis and the new APOs have all been excellent,” one judge wrote in an anonymous survey as part of an analysis of the pilot. “I have not seen any issues or problems with their performance.”   

Deputy Fasano explains, “By redefining POs and APOs job roles and responsibilities, we’ve re-engineered the courtroom process to better meet the needs of the court and the public,” adding that POs can now more readily supervise the cases at the level the judges want. “The new process allows greater flexibility and responsiveness, and empowers our probation officer corps.”   

Next steps. MPS plans to roll out this new staffing model to additional courts throughout the state. For pilot participants like Bristol Superior Chief Probation Officer Erie Contreras, who had participated in the pilot as CPO at Suffolk Superior, the expansion can’t come soon enough.

“Prior to my having APOs, my POs had eight duty days a month – either at the counter or courtroom – losing the opportunity to see people and supervise high-risk cases,” says Chief Contreras. “Now, our officers are down to 3-4 duty days a month, and retention has never been higher. I’m looking forward to expanding this program to Bristol.”  

Learn more:  MPS Strategic Plan - APO Reengineering Initiative  pptx format of APO Reengineering Initiative

MPS Strategic Plan - APO Reengineering Initiative - Pilot Team Members

Chief Probation Officer Donald Chausse, New Bedford District Court

Chief Probation Officer Terence O’Neil, Springfield District Court

Chief Probation Officer Erie Contreras, Suffolk Superior Court (now CPO at Bristol Superior Court)

Chief Probation Officer Maureen Chamberlain, Worcester District Court

Special thanks to: Regional Supervisor Francine Ryan, who served as MPS Strategic Plan’s Tactic Champion; as well as Thomas Innis, Partner and Daniel Danon, Sr. Consultant from The Ripples Group.