Firing Line

The new tough-talking probation director has ousted aides, but can he improve services?

Shortly after Paul Donnelly took over as the director of the Harris County probation department, he assembled his 800 employees and delivered what he describes as the "hack it or pack it speech." He encouraged the staff to view him as their dictator, and to fear him appropriately. "If I wanted a friend," a former employee recalls him saying, "I would buy a puppy."

Donnelly was hired from a private corrections firm in Florida four months ago to reform the department, which many judges say is antiquated and inefficient. He says he wants to improve how courts and probation officers handle thousands of convicted criminals, but some attorneys and judges believe he is too brash to be effective.

Early on, Donnelly made ripples in the department, known as Community Supervision and Corrections, when he fired three supervisors. His office sports a corked ceramic jar labeled "Ashes of Problem Employees."

Attorney David Jones says Donnelly is abusing his authority.
Attorney David Jones says Donnelly is abusing his authority.

"Donnelly's arrogance, his abuses of authority, have put him in a very precarious position," says David Jones, a board member of the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, whose sister was fired by Donnelly. "He has his own department ready to undermine him at any false move because of the way he has treated some of his best people."

Donnelly says a tough approach to reform is exactly what's needed.

"It sounds harsh, but I'm not here to be everyone's priest or therapist," he says. "I'm here to take a multimillion-dollar agency and make it effective. And to [help taxpayers] get their money's worth. They haven't gotten their money's worth for some time."

A study commissioned by Harris County judges last year found major problems with the department. Many low-risk probationers were funneled into expensive programs, while high-risk offenders were neglected. Probation officers were poorly trained. Supervisors did "relatively little direct supervision." And nobody was evaluating which programs worked.

The report blamed weak leadership. Probation officers received orders from a confusing mishmash of dozens of individual courts. "The department might as well be described now as some 45 different organizations," the report said, "each with its own rules, policies and procedures; each autonomous and accountable to no one."

A committee of judges soon began searching for a new director. They passed over Mike Enax, who was interim department head after the retirement of director Nancy Platt. Donnelly was vice president of Youth Services International in Sarasota. He jumped at the chance to shake things up in Houston.

"I'm not a caretaker of the status quo," he says. "I had opportunities to go to other agencies that were doing fine; I would have been bored."

One of Donnelly's first moves was to fire Janis Bane, a supervisor in the special services division who had been a competitor for his job.

The decision surprised many people. "It was upsetting to me," says state District Judge Denise Collins. "She had a vision, she'd worked in every department, she'd gotten rave reviews…She was the greatest ambassador for the department, in my opinion."

Donnelly also fired Roger Perez, a 23-year employee, who was five months away from qualifying for retirement benefits.

The terminations caused such a buzz in criminal justice circles that state Senator John Whitmire of Houston this month pledged to investigate.

While declining to discuss individual employees, Donnelly defended the terminations in general as important cost-cutting measures. "They had these management positions making good money, $60,000 or $70,000," he says, "and it was just very top-heavy."

Donnelly, whose salary is $110,000, says he's applied a similar belt-tightening to himself: Previous directors had personal secretaries; he shares his with four employees.

Efficiency is important for the probation department. Legislators hope it will help reduce demand on the state's costly prison system. But without cuts, the department will overrun its $50 million budget by more than $3 million this year.

Donnelly wants employees to do more with less.

For the first time in years, he's requiring probation officers to work on evenings and weekends, so they can visit probationers in their homes. "We are going to look at where the zip codes are that give us the most business," he says, "and we want to be there."

But an internal memo reportedly sent by Donnelly to his aides in November reflected more problems for the department. The memo, obtained by the Houston Press, indicated that two months after Donnelly took office, his staff was sending a higher percentage of probationers to jail in almost every court.

The new policies also have taken a toll on probation workers.

"The morale is terrible, the workload has gone up, and everyone is scared of what Donnelly is capable of," says a former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The former worker says the typical load of 120 cases for probation officers has risen to about 135 since Donnelly took over, because probation officers who left the department haven't been replaced.

"People are working over 40 hours a week and not reporting it," she says, "because they are afraid if they don't do everything they're supposed to do, they'll get fired."

Several current probation officers either refused to comment on the changes or did not return phone calls for this story.

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