Harsh Reality

They’re just using you, Scott. Again.

Illustration by Shout

Illustration by Shout

HE’LL BE BACK on your doorstep soon, bearing pie charts and reform proposals, looking for any sign that you are as committed as he is. But you’re going to break Scott Harshbarger’s heart again, aren’t you, Massachusetts?

This past fall, the state Supreme Judicial Court asked the former attorney general to do what governors, mayors, and nonprofits have asked him to do so many times before — turn an embarrassing political problem into an opportunity for meaningful reform. This time, the humiliation is a hiring-and-promotion scandal at a Massachusetts probation department so rife with political patronage and corruption that the SJC’s independent investigator called it fraud “on a grand scale.”

An enraged public and an energized media — the Globe Spotlight Team first exposed the extent of the irregularities — have been focusing on which solon stashed whose nephew on the probation payroll and whether any indictments of Beacon Hill power players will emerge from state and federal criminal probes now under way. Those are important questions. Patronage, and the corruption and incompetence it spawns, are a scourge on state government. Some people ought to go to jail. But what should not be lost in all the fury is the substantive failure of the prison and probation system to deliver meaningful support to offenders. That is the real threat to public safety, and an unsustainable drain on public coffers. (Massachusetts spent more money incarcerating people in 2009 than it spent on higher education, social services, or public health.)

Look for Harshbarger to take this longer view. He’ll concern himself not so much with who got whom a job than with how it was that responsible governance got hijacked, undermining in 10 years what had been one of the most respected probation operations in the nation. The SJC asked Harshbarger and a bipartisan task force of local luminaries to recommend changes in hiring practices, but he is as likely to reexamine this state’s entire criminal justice system. How do we know this? Because that is what he always does.

That’s the comprehensive approach he took in 2003, when then-Governor Mitt Romney asked him to examine prison conditions after an inmate murdered John Geoghan in the defrocked priest’s own cell. Harshbarger came back with 82 pages of analysis of everything from staffing levels to medical care. That is the approach he took in 2009 when ACORN, the national voter registration and antipoverty group, asked him to investigate its high-profile meltdown. Harshbarger came back with a detailed accounting of events that pinned the collapse less on ACORN’s serious management problems than on a right-wing campaign of distortion fueled by the complicity of cowed progressives and lazy reporters.

Those recommendations to Romney? Largely ignored. That report on ACORN? All but unread. And the findings Harshbarger will produce on the probation department? Likely to meet the same fate.