A heroin epidemic was in full swing in 1971 when Bernie Fitzgerald — fresh from Boston College — took a job in the probation department of Dorchester District Court. On day one, his boss handed him a file with the names of 160 offenders. His orientation program consisted of a guided tour of every dive bar between Uphams Corner in Dorchester and Dudley Square in Roxbury
Next week, Fitzgerald will retire after 41 years, almost 30 of them spent as chief probation officer of the Dorchester court. That was enough time to see the surrounding neighborhood tilt toward despair, right itself, and then run through the cycle again. He has worked with judges of every stripe, from legendary bullies of the bench like the late Paul King to current presiding judge Rosalind Miller, who is known to temper tough justice with empathy.
Fitzgerald, who manages 28 probation officers in Dorchester, hired talented people. That alone is a remarkable legacy considering the pressures exerted on probation offices statewide by former commissioner John J. O’Brien, who was indicted in March for rigging the department’s hiring and promotion policies in favor of his cronies and favored politicians.
“I hired people smarter than I am,’’ said Fitzgerald, 63. “My job was to take away obstacles so they can get things done.’’
Not many chiefs of probation could say the same during O’Brien’s autocratic reign. Or unabashedly tell his hires that he loves them, as Fitzgerald did when he announced his retirement.
Fitzgerald’s management style contributed to a breakthrough in 1992 with the launch of Operation Night Light, aimed at illuminating hidden probation violations. Until then, probation was practiced mostly in a fortress-like atmosphere where, according to Fitzgerald, officers and probationers “spent 20 minutes lying to each other’’ about curfew compliance, avoiding criminal associates, and other terms of probation.
That changed when members of the Boston Police anti-gang unit and two Dorchester probation officers — William Stewart and the late Richard Skinner — proposed teaming up to make surprise visits to the homes and hangouts of probationers from 7 p.m. to midnight.
The need to shift work schedules and other bureaucratic barriers could easily have snuffed out Operation Night Light. But Fitzgerald, who claims no credit for its success, cleared the hurdles. He and his staff quickly discovered that many probationers welcomed Night Light’s intensity. The threat of probation revocation gave them the excuse they needed to reject former gang associates and avoid criminal hot spots.
“You have to believe in redemption,’’ said Fitzgerald, who estimates that only about 5 percent of the convicted criminals he has seen over four decades are beyond reach.
Fitzgerald, a husband and father of three, grew up in Roxbury’s Mission Hill as the oldest of seven children. While attending the local parochial high school, he was handpicked by Redemptorist priests to attend a seminary in Pennsylvania. Fitzgerald thought he was acculturating well to the rigorous classes and long work details in nearby orchards. That was until he was unceremoniously bounced out of the seminary at the age of 16.
“They told me I was too cynical,’’ he recalled.
Fitzgerald didn’t look especially cynical last Friday morning while seated in the back row of the first session of Dorchester Court. There was no one in the prisoner dock. Instead, the room was filled with proud relatives of more than a dozen probationers who had completed a course on “Changing Lives through Literature.’ Each had spent 11 sessions with a professor, judge, and probation officer analyzing an autobiography of social reformer and former slave Frederick Douglass. Instead of the usual pleas and bail orders, this day found offenders swapping insights and embraces with judges and probation officers.
“We traded our freedom for guns and drugs,’’ said one man as he picked up his certificate, good for a six-month reduction in his probationary sentence.
Within the trial court system, Dorchester District Court judges and probation officers have a reputation for being hard-nosed to a fault. But even-handed and respected would be a better description.
Fitzgerald’s hobbies of weightlifting and reading poetry won’t fill his days. He may consult. However that turns out, Fitzgerald can leave knowing that he turned many people to a new and better way of life.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.