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Changes afoot in Northampton District Court probation ranks

The court’s longtime probation chief, Thomas C. Foley, is on leave, as are two of the District Court’s five probation officers, William M. Fisher and Mary Beth Pniak-Costello. The Probation Department has declined to release details of the leaves.

The court’s former assistant chief probation officer, Teresa Leary Ellison, retired in October. Her position has been posted but not filled.

A probation officer attached to the Hampshire County Community Corrections Center also has been on leave for months but is expected to return, according to the state Probation Department. In the meantime, a probation officer from Worcester County is overseeing probation activities at the corrections center on Pleasant Street.

Chief Probation Officer Robert P. Ryan of Eastern Hampshire District Court is managing both the Belchertown and Northampton district courts for now.

A probation officer from the Belchertown court is working on a temporary part-time basis to handle the workload in Northampton, according to state probation officials, who said additional help is on the way.

“We are in the process of transferring a probation officer from another court to Northampton District Court as part of our agency’s rebalancing plan, which allows the transfer of probation officers to a court that is in need of additional staffing,” Coria Holland, a Probation Department spokeswoman, told the Gazette in an email.

“Hampshire District Court, with assistance from other courts, is working diligently to balance its work and case loads,” Holland said.

Local defense attorneys said the depleted staffing has not affected probation services.

“I really haven’t noticed any decline in services in any way,” said Colin Keefe, an attorney in Leeds. “I think they are on the ball.”

Northampton attorney John Drake said that the diminished probation staffing could affect the level of supervision of probationers, but added, “I haven’t felt the impact yet.”

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan described the Northampton District Court probation staff as “the gold standard of service and responsiveness” and said the temporary reduction in its numbers has not affected the prosecution of cases.

“However, a prolonged shortage of probation officers will impact the office’s ability to check on offenders in the community and hold probationers accountable,” Sullivan said in a statement emailed to the Gazette.

“The required office visits and personal home visits to high-risk offenders are important for community safety,” Sullivan said. “As much as other probation offices have assisted with shortages, we are hopeful the reduced ranks of probation officers will be addressed in the near future.”

The Probation Department has recently been embroiled in a patronage hiring scandal that has led to criminal indictments.

Christopher Hoffman of Hatfield, the former acting chief probation officer of Hampshire Superior Court, is expected to go on trial later this year in federal court for obstruction of justice charges.

William H. Burke III, also of Hatfield and a former supervisor of district court probation officers, was indicted last year for his alleged role in helping to establish a rigged hiring system that favored job applicants with ties to influential state legislators, according to federal prosecutors. Burke pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of mail fraud and one count of racketeering conspiracy in U.S. District Court in Worcester. His case is ongoing.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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