Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Interview with Massachusetts Commissioner of Probation Pamerson Ifill

May 17, 2024
| Spring 2024 Vol. 68 #2

Interviewed by Jade Brown

Boston Bar Journal board member Jade Brown recently interviewed Pamerson Ifill, the new Massachusetts Commissioner of Probation, just as he began his five-year term of office after having served as deputy commissioner since 2019. This interview, which has been edited and condensed, and which is accompanied by video excerpts of the discussion, explores Ifill’s approach to the work of probation and the goals for his tenure with a focus on innovation.

Brown: You’ve been in the position for roughly four months now. What has it been like?

Commissioner: This has been a whirlwind. … I know the work of probation, that is the fun part. The difficult and challenging part is about communicating a vision and the mission of the organization and steering it in that direction.

Brown: What would you say the goal of the probation department is, or what should it be?

Commissioner: Our mission focuses on offender rehabilitation and taking care of victims and survivors, addressing issues of public safety, and advancing not just probation, but the broader mission of access to justice. We’ve evolved significantly over the last ten years and … we’re focusing on reducing the number of violations. We’re providing housing. We spend $15 million now a year — the Massachusetts Probation Service and the Massachusetts Trial Court — on short term housing for individuals on probation and parole.

We have eighteen community justice support centers that are focusing on rehabilitation and treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, and motivational interviewing. There’s a broad spectrum of services that we’re engaging in, that traditionally in the past, weren’t areas where we focused in probation.

Brown: How does the probation department’s housing program work and how does that affect, for example, recidivism of folks who are under supervision?

Commissioner: Most of our housing is short term because we just don’t have the budget or the capacity to provide long-term housing. But we know that stable housing is conducive to good probation practice and supervision.

Brown: In terms of the mission of the probation department as a whole, what role would you say individual probation officers play or can play in reaching this larger goal?

Commissioner: The heart of a probation officer is the ability to build a connection with the individual that we’re supervising. Inherently, that ability to build that connection is just, you know, being empathetic and understanding at a human level. I think these are really important skills. We’re looking for probation officers with human services, mental health and treatment and educational backgrounds.

Brown: What improvements do you hope to make over your five-year tenure?

Commissioner: Right now, we’re focusing on three big tenets. One, I’m going to get a group of experts internally and externally within the field that do this work to look at our policy protocol or practice and to do a comprehensive review and a rewrite of our policy and protocols. And we’ve been dealing with some written policies in Massachusetts that have been in place since the first probation officer was hired in 1878. I don’t know that we’ve ever done a comprehensive review. So, we’re doing that.

Two, community engagement. The trial court has been focusing on access and fairness surveys because we know that communities, especially communities of color, people from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds, have different experiences within the court system. We want to make sure that we’re able to engage communities, we want to make sure that we look and reflect the communities that we serve.

When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we’re really thinking about not only our hiring or promotion or training, but all of our practices. We have a standard condition of probation reporting that says you need to report to your probation officer. We’re open 8:30AM to 4:30 PM or 9AM to 5PM. We bring people in from their work, from their homes, from their treatment, from all sorts of things during the day. That disrupts the natural flow of what life looks like. And we want to be engaging people after hours, on weekends and other nontraditional times.

The third one is very focused on employee health, wellness, and morale. We want to make sure that we support, engage, and build inclusive environments, and that our managers have the kinds of leadership skills and capacity to be able to work with diverse populations.

Brown: You started a very innovative system of sending out text messages to folks to remind them of their court dates. Do you envision similar innovations using technology as part of this process that you have outlined?

Commissioner: The text messaging system was launched during the height of the pandemic. And as we continue to build on that by sending somewhere between fifty to sixty thousand text messages monthly. We’re seeing a 3% decline in failure to appear rates in the populations that we’re targeting.

I’m hoping that we can do more check with kiosks where people aren’t coming in and just simply waiting. I’m hoping that we can build apps where rather than having to come to a probation office to upload verification requirements, we can just scan your mail, and provide the verification documentation.

We have close to 4,700 people on [GPS] bracelets, and another close to 6,000 people on SCRAM [(Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring)] devices for alcohol breath tests. I’m hoping that we can find equipment that is much more dignified than a big ankle bracelet.

Brown: One of the critiques of the probation system is that the system is predicated on the stick and not the carrot. What role do you think incentives should play in the probation system?

Commissioner: I have two responses to that. You know, the Council of State Governments and the Pew Trust came into Massachusetts in 2018 and 2019, and we are ranked number one or two in the country as the probation department that violates and sends the least amount of people to prison or jail in the country.

That said, the ratio of violations to arrests still in the Commonwealth is problematic…. About 67 to 68% of all of our violations are for technical offenses, not new offenses, versus about 31 to 32% [of cases] where somebody commits a new crime. I would like us to drive that technical violation down by using much more graduated approaches to how people are [deemed] noncompliant. If somebody’s not showing up or missing treatment, we need to figure out other ways of incentivizing people to comply with their conditions.

In 2019, we had 30,961 violations of probation; in 2023, it was 17,261 violations. So, we’ve cut it by [roughly] than half. Wherever around the country, people see probation as a recidivism trap. Here in Massachusetts, we approach it very differently.

Brown: People are hopeful that you can make changes. How do you feel about that? Is that a lot of pressure?

Commissioner: You know, it’s tough to be the first of any kind. I’m always conscious that … probation has been here since 1878. I know I stand on the shoulders of a lot of people. Some days, it is tough; [but] I know that there’s a lot of people hoping that I’ll be successful.

What I’m hoping to do is to get people to understand the broader narrative. I grew up as a person on the borderline of problems. I’ve been stabbed. I got shot one night, and these are things that I haven’t talked to family members or even people about until recently. And that’s just the nature of how trauma can be. So, I know that there are a lot of people like me in the system.

I want to be able to make sure that we provide opportunities and second chances for people who so many people have given up on. So, do I feel the pressure some days? Yeah, I do. But I know the work of probation; I fundamentally believe in the work of probation and [of] the Trial Courts.

Pamerson O. Ifill is an innovative and versatile criminal justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professional with more than 36 years of experience in transformational leadership, change management, and improving justice outcomes for court-involved individuals and families. On November 27, 2023, Ifill was appointed as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Probation Service (MPS), the nation’s first probation department.

Jade Brown is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Civil Litigation & Justice Program (CLJP) at Boston University School of Law. Jade teaches the art of lawyering to BU Law students, who represent low-income clients while increasing access to justice. During the pandemic, she started a nationally recognized eviction defense project at BU Law where students assist tenants with drafting responsive pleadings to eviction cases using the MADE (MA Defense for Eviction) online portal created by Quinten Steeinhuis. Jade also directs the Consumer Economic Justice Clinic at BU Law, where she supervises law students working on consumer law cases and causes. Previously, Jade was a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, where she practiced housing and consumer law.