On two consecutive recent Tuesday nights, the Dorchester District Court’s Probation Department allowed the Reporter to accompany its officers while they met with probationers. The reporter rode first alongside two officers on daytime rounds and later with the Boston Police-affiliated NiteLite program that watches over potentially more volatile offenders.
Probation Officer Matthew McDonough and Boston Police Youth Violence Strike Force officer John Burrows left the BPD station on Hancock Street one of the nights with a docket of more than 20 probationers to check up on. McDonough is a 15-year probation veteran and a Dorchester native; Burrows, a member of the outfit popularly known as the Gang Unit, has worked in the neighborhood for years.
The state’s Probation Department mission is the “delivery of justice through investigations, community supervision of offenders/litigants, diversion of appropriate offenders from institutional sentences, reduction in crime, mediations, service to victims, and the performance of other appropriate community service functions.” Probation covers offenders usually not sentenced to jail time, often for drug or assault charges, and officers enforce the court’s orders and restrictions.
“Each person has different terms and conditions and we don’t want to just see them in the house; we want to make it a meaningful discussion,” McDonough said. “Seeing them out in the community gives us a better opportunity to see what’s really happening in their lives, in their houses.”
The first stop on the NiteLite tour was to a halfway house for probationers with substance abuse problems. The three-decker houses 18 women and is overseen by 27-year-old “Joy” of Woburn, who supervises the house as part of her probation on larceny charges. “I wasn’t from Dorchester. I’ve never been in trouble before, never been on probation. Because of my drug abuse, that’s where it landed me,” Joy said.
McDonough called Joy “a success story,” for turning her life around, staying clean, and paying off her debts.
“I just did it the way it was laid out. I’m really a good kid, I just lost my way and you know, I’ve come a long way,” Joy said of her path off drugs and toward stability. She has a job helping to manage a large company in Boston and hopes to soon be off probation, out of the halfway house, and living in her own apartment.
The NiteLite program pairs probation officers with police to conduct checks on probationers’ whereabouts and living conditions and to make sure they’re within the bounds of their court-ordered restrictions. NiteLite was first established by Dorchester Court probation officers William Stewart and Richard Skinner in 1992 and became a model for probation checks nationwide and around the world.
During the drive over to an apartment by the corner of Columbia Road and Washington Street, McDonough said he really wanted to see the probationer, Ramon, get through probation. Ramon has been working as a parking attendant at UMass Boston and according to McDonough has always put forward a sense of responsibility.
When the officers arrived at his door, they were greeted by the scent of marijuana. Ramon admitted to smoking some pot, a violation that didn’t go over well with McDonough. “This is not a good thing. Not a positive thing,” McDonough told him before scheduling a sit-down the next day to reevaluate the terms of his probation in light of the violation.
“That tells me immediately that he’s not taking things seriously and that’s something I’m going to address tomorrow and it could affect a further disposition in how we handle his case. We’re not going to turn a blind eye to it,” McDonough said. The incident at the smoke-filled apartment could bring further drug testing to evaluate the extent of Ramon’s drug use.
Probation officers Cyril Jaundoo and Josefina Perez, 27- and 21- year veterans, respectively, check in on their cases together during evening hours when probationers are likely to be home, but before court-ordered curfews become applicable. Perez says she has seen about a 60 percent increase in the number of cases each officer is assigned over the length of her career. Cases are being dealt with and probationers aren’t falling through the crack,” she says, adding, “it’s getting harder and harder, though.”
The two of them wave or call out to people they recognize around the community or when they get hollered at by people on the street. “When you’ve been working here as long as I have, you know everybody. Or they know you,” Jaundoo said.
Cases come from the Dorchester Court and can also be transferred to the Dorchester jurisdiction if the probationer lives in the neighborhood. “We probably get more transfers in than anyone, because everyone goes out and commits their crimes and come home, so there’s a lot,” Jaundoo said. He tells people to come down to Dorchester court on a Monday morning to get an idea of the number of people filtering through the system.
“You’ll be like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here, a concert or something?’ It’s just normal business for Dorchester,” he said.
Part of a probation officer’s job is to connect with different aspects of the community and to keep an eye on at-risk youths, difficult re-offenders, or troublesome street corners. Letting probationers and, sometimes, victims know about their options for services, legal help and employment is also key to their mission.
Toward the end of their rounds, Jaundoo and Perez paid a visit to Robert Peyton, a 55-year-old probationer nearing the end of his term – less than five months to go on a three-year term stemming from an assault and battery charge. He is looking forward to moving on. “I’m not trying to have no axes hanging over my head,” he said with a laugh. “I do whatever I can do to expedite that process.”
Peyton is studying child development at Springfield College and takes additional classes through the probation program to shorten his term. “I haven’t dealt with the system since I was 18 years old. So it was new to me since I was dealing with it again at 55,” Peyton said. Though he admitted some frustration with the system, he isn’t complaining about probation, considering the alternative.
“In comparison I would take [probation] any day. I’d rather be dealing with that than dealing with a jailor or some big black and white guy, size 15 boots and looking at me all crazy, and I’m away from my family. Like I said, I know the difference,” Peyton said.
According to the state office of the Commissioner of Probation, the Boston Municipal Court on Washington Street by Codman Square is the third busiest district court in the state, with more than 2,000 probationers supervised by just 22 officers and 7 assistant chief probation officers. Other municipal courts across the city are the BMC downtown, and ones in Charlestown, East Boston, Roxbury, South Boston, and West Roxbury.
The state system dates to 1841 when Boston shoemaker John Augustus founded the Massachusetts Probation Service. There are currently 105 probation departments throughout the state’s 12 counties, with 8 in Boston, 12 Superior Court departments, 62 district departments, 11 for juvenile offenders, and 12 probate and family court departments. All these departments supervise probationers, organize community service programs, and act as conduits between communities, law enforcement and the judiciary.