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Patriots Live

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34

Final

Yvonne Abraham

Probation as it should be

Sometimes, the good guys win.

It may take years, a newspaper exposé, an independent counsel, and criminal charges, but it happens.

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Today’s tale of righted wrongs comes from Dorchester district court, where the recently-installed chief probation officer is a thoughtful, disarming woman named Dee Kennedy.

A few years ago, it was almost inconceivable that Kennedy would have this job, because she’s exactly the right person for it. A former ESL teacher fluent in Spanish with two master’s degrees and 22 years of experience in the criminal justice system — most of it as a probation officer in this courthouse — Kennedy has a smart, expansive view of public safety. The Dorchester resident is enormously well regarded nationally, often invited to speak on her groundbreaking work to prevent domestic violence.

But in John J. O’Brien’s Probation Department, Dee Kennedy was going nowhere.

In his 12 years as commissioner, O’Brien turned his department into hack heaven. A 2010 Globe Spotlight investigation found that probation employed at least 250 friends, relatives, and supporters of politicians and court officials, some of them unqualified for their jobs.

Kennedy was not one of O’Brien’s people. She was a woman, for one thing. And she was way too by-the-book. So when the chief probation job came up at West Roxbury district court in 2004, Kennedy didn’t get it, even though the top judge there argued she was the best person for the job. Instead, O’Brien installed 73-year-old James Rush, father of a state legislator. When Rush turned into a disaster (he left two years later, facing a discrimination lawsuit), O’Brien passed Kennedy over again, this time in favor of a donor to then-treasurer Tim Cahill, an O’Brien ally.

Now O’Brien is gone, and facing corruption charges. And Kennedy is a chief probation officer at last.

“We have an opportunity now to move forward,” is all Kennedy, 54, will say about the end of the O’Brien era, citing ongoing court proceedings.

She won’t need to bring a revolution to Dorchester. For three decades, probation there was run by Bernie Fitzgerald, a legend who made his operation one of the most innovative in the country. Because he’d established himself long before O’Brien’s reign, Fitzgerald was able to hire great officers willing to try anything to keep their probationers straight. They visited probationers to enforce curfews and check on living conditions. He introduced a fatherhood training program, and helped start a probationer book group.

Kennedy was a natural fit in his courthouse. She grew up on West Roxbury, the fourth of 10 children. (Her twin brother, Bill, is a priest and a Navy captain now working as a chaplain in Kabul. Her younger brother Kyran, a Black Hawk pilot, was killed in Iraq in 2003.) She recalls her family struggling when she was a kid, but she had it pretty good compared to those she works with now.

“I never thought I came from Nirvana,” she says, “but I had an intact family.”

She’s no pushover. Her first responsibility is to make sure judges’ orders are followed, her second is to the community, and her third is to the probationers themselves. But connecting offenders with the services they need to stay out of trouble — housing, education, health care — can take care of all three.

“When people say, ‘Lock ’em all up,’ you’re kidding me, right?” she says. “We don’t put people away for life. . . . Where do they go when they get out? You’re coming back to my neighborhood, I want you to have as many services as I can find for you.”

Talking with Kennedy highlights O’Brien’s real crime at probation. Every hack O’Brien put in probation meant one fewer qualified, compassionate person holding back the onslaught of offenders and victims — holding back justice.

Slowly, the department is coming back. Some of the people who fought O’Brien’s destructive edicts are in charge now. But many who benefited from the old patronage system remain. It took years to dismantle probation’s once-sterling reputation. It’ll take a long time to build it back.

Dee Kennedy gives me hope that day will come.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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