IN A BEFUDDLING move, Governor Patrick revealed this week that his decision to terminate the top two officials at the state Sex Offender Registry Board was partly based on their efforts to force a member of the governor's extended family to register as a sex offender. The convoluted story dates back to 1993, when Patrick's brother-in-law, Bernard Sigh, was convicted of spousal rape in California. It jumps ahead to 2007, when a hearing officer at the Massachusetts registry ruled that Sigh posed no danger and could be removed from the list. The hearing officer's supervisors, both appointed under the Patrick administration, sought to overrule that decision, setting off rounds of recriminations, whistle blowing, and legal wrangling.
To the extent that Patrick fired state officials over their handling of a case involving his own family, it's a lapse of judgment. But Patrick has said his decision also reflected a broader lack of confidence in the supervisors' work. If so, it's bizarre — and disappointing — that he waited until the waning months of his tenure to shake up the Sex Offender Registry Board.
Though criminal justice is one of the oldest functions of government, it too evolves, or should evolve, as knowledge advances. Progressive criminal-justice agencies use predictive models that measure an offender's criminal history, family ties, prison disciplinary record, and other factors related to a likelihood to reoffend. But key agencies within the Commonwealth's vast Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which includes the Parole Board, Department of Correction, and Sex Offender Registry Board, have at times fallen behind the latest research.
The registry board classifies sex offenders based on their level of dangerousness. Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court chastised the board for its outmoded guidelines that failed to reflect the latest work on "empirically validated risk factors." In firing former registry board chairwoman Saundra Edwards and former executive director Jeanne Holmes, Patrick cited a failure to stay on top of developments in their field, among other factors.
Similar criticism had fallen on the Parole Board, which limped along for many years without a proper, statistics-based method to assess the likelihood that a criminal might reoffend. In the case of the Parole Board — now in better hands — poor tools had allowed dangerous criminals to walk the streets. The opposite may be the case at the sex offender board, where people who pose no threat to society are in danger of being listed on a registry with some of the state's most heinous sexual predators.
Patrick acts forcefully when things come to a head. In 2011, he cleaned house at the Parole Board after a parolee murdered a Woburn police officer. In July, he forced the resignation of Department of Correction commissioner Luis Spencer, who had failed to act on an internal report that pointed to misconduct on the part of three guards associated with the death of a Bridgewater inmate. Yet it shouldn't take a crisis for the governor to seek to redirect criminal justice policy in the state.
All of the agencies in question are under the governor's control. Patrick's successor will need to take a hard look at personnel in the public safety office. And he or she may even need to establish a permanent role for an inspector general to evaluate the risk assessment tools, budgets, and training opportunities across the state's criminal justice agencies. These agencies, which regulate the lives of thousands of people, should be treated as dynamic entities whose policies are continually reassesed, rather than backwaters where change only comes in a crisis — or when the governor feels a personal stake.