Safety in Numbers

Do you believe the numbers you hear from public officials? Are there really only 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., for example? How about budget proposals - like the Big Dig's first, $2.5 billion budget? I don't trust them either. Here's some new evidence to fuel our lack of confidence - a report in the Boston Globe on the Massachusetts probabtion department.

The Probation Department overstates its reported workload — perhaps by a factor of four, the Spotlight review found, creating the false impression in statistics published nationally that Massachusetts has one of the busiest probation departments in the country.

 

Numbers are ripe for manipulation, and people who want to advocate for something like a bigger budget are usually the only ones in a position to know how manipulative their numbers are.

O’Brien contends that his probation officers supervise a staggering 167 probationers each, but the figure includes minor, administrative cases that his predecessors didn’t bother to include because they require such trivial oversight. O’Brien further inflated the number by counting all cases for the year rather than at a particular time, the way other departments do.

For bureaucrats looking to build an argument for expanding their programs and budgets, the temptation to tweak the criteria used to generate their numbers is overwhelming.

Once the minor cases and questionable accounting practices are swept away, probation officers typically supervise, at any given time, about 40 criminals who present a potential risk to the public, based on a Spotlight Team review of monthly reports by probation offices at 84 district and superior courts. That’s well below the national standard of 50 cases per officer recommended by the American Probation and Parole Association. The real caseload is probably even smaller, since probation offices tend to overstate their workloads compared with computerized court records, acting administrator Corbett has found.

When the cats away, the mice are busy stealing our money. We've got to pay closer attention, and we've got to assume that everyone's lying.

Any claim that electronic surveillance saves money is undercut by the fact that probation has hired more employees to provide the service — 59 — than any other state, a Spotlight Team survey shows. Many of them are politically connected job holders, including the godson of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and the wife of DeLeo’s deputy, State Representative Thomas M. Petrolati.

There's no reason to trust the numbers you're being fed in support of policy arguments - especially if you haven't spent some time doing your own research.

But one senior probation official who asked not to be identified said there’s no mystery why the Legislature has lined up so consistently behind O’Brien.

“It’s patronage,’’ he said. “I’ll bet an arm or a leg that everyone in the Legislature has someone in there . . . This program that they put out there was all about jobs.’’

Oh, by the way. You've got to watch the news organizations, as well. Papers like the Boston Globe have their own, hidden agendas.