Firing Line

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

Donnelly is taking the complaints in stride. "The morale problems will ebb and flow based on events," he says. "I'm not going to worry about it."

Donnelly, a tall, middle-aged man built like a football player, sports a thick moustache and a badge on his belt. He has probably changed the department faster in the first four months than any other director.

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

Almost simultaneously, he has launched a new employee training academy and begun designing a residential program open to mothers in lieu of traditional jail.

Describing Donnelly, state District Judge Caprice Cosper says, "I see someone who will look at a lot of different things, and I think that's a good thing."

Cosper praises Donnelly's plans to help courts place criminals in probation programs suited to their needs. "If we want to keep our funding, and we want to have good programs, we need to be paying attention to this," she says.

But not all members of the judiciary place as much faith in Donnelly.

Judge Collins called many of Donnelly's previous employers before he was hired to lead the department and says 75 percent of the comments she received were negative.

None of Donnelly's prior bosses contacted by the Press returned calls. However, Collins shared comments she says she collected from the employers on the condition that individuals she spoke with remain anonymous.

Donnelly had headed the juvenile justice fund for New Jersey. Collins says she asked a former Donnelly co-worker there if he would hire him, and the response was "I would run for the hills." A probation specialist who worked close to Donnelly when he served as chief probation officer in Corpus Christi told her, "I wouldn't even read his application." And another person in the Texas probation community cited Donnelly's "Gestapo-like style."

Donnelly says anybody who does anything good is bound to have enemies. "I certainly don't equate myself with Jesus Christ," he says, "but I think he had a number of enemies, too."

Donnelly declined to name people he considers foes, but he cheered the retirement of former district judge Ted Poe, now a congressional candidate. Poe gained ample national publicity for his creative punishments. A source says Donnelly referred to Poe derisively as "Mr. 60 Minutes," alluding to his appearance on that news program.

The probation director pledged to loosen the courts' stranglehold on probation workers by rotating them between judges, says attorney Jones, who recently met with Donnelly. But if Donnelly pushes too hard, the courts could revolt.

Donnelly needs the support of the judges for what may be his most important and politically sensitive proposal: convincing the county's 37 different criminal courts to harmonize their probation policies.

"It is a huge, huge thing," Donnelly says. "Because right now, we have 37 different ways to respond to criminal behavior."

For example, one judge might require a drug offender on probation to take a urine test every month -- at an expense of $5 per test -- while another might forgo the tests altogether.

"I don't think that's an appropriate system of justice," Donnelly says, "and I know the judges don't, either."

But some judges want autonomy. "I wouldn't think you could get judges to standardize anything," says District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. "They are all elected officials…It's their job [to set their own policies], and if they don't do their job, then you unelect them."

Donnelly says all but four or five of the judges support standardizing the policies. "I am confident that we have the overwhelming majority that will be responsive," he says, "and those who aren't, we're just going to have to deal with it."

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