Peter Koutoujian didn't go looking for the job of sheriff of
Middlesex County. The job came looking for him, in the aftermath of
the resignation and subsequent suicide of the previous sheriff,
James DiPaola. At first, Koutoujian says, he wasn't really inclined
to take the post. He was enjoying a satisfying career as an
eight-term state representative. But then he reconsidered: "I
thought I could do a good job."
That's not a generic statement. It springs from Koutoujian's
passion for victims' rights, balanced with an awareness of the life
prospects for ex-offenders. He sees the job as a window of
opportunity to make a difference in the lives of both victims and
offenders, and to raise the profile of the sheriff's office as a
positive role in the community.
Since taking office more than two months ago, he has been on a
whirlwind schedule. Upon accepting the post, he formed a 22-member
transition committee, comprised of police chiefs, corrections
officers and mental-health and substance-abuse experts, to whom he
gave unfettered access to books, regulations, policies and
procedures - and then got out of their way so as not to influence
or prejudice their findings.
He also requested an outside audit by the state to examine the
sheriff's office from top to bottom, to give a clearer picture of
how it works. He doesn't expect to find wrongdoing, he says, - "I
just want to start with a fresh slate."
A full agenda
He'll need a fresh slate because he's got plenty of ideas to
fill it up again. The sheriff's office will seek American
Correctional Association accreditation within the year, a
designation that would establish a "gold standard" of operations.
He's also planning to establish merit-based promotions exams. Also
in the works is the idea for a citizens' academy, to educate the
public on what the sheriff's office does.
He's a strong proponent of vocational training for offenders.
Advocating a holistic way to treat the inmate population,
Koutoujian wants to expand the program by which private companies
certify training programs for the department's inmates. The
department already has a Culinary Arts Program, certified by
Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica. Inmates are
eligible for nine to 12 credits at Middlesex Community College if
they sign up at the latter institution.
Ideas for which there's no current timetable include an initiative
to use videoconferencing in bail review hearings, reducing the
chance of inmate flight or harm to corrections officers, and a
process that would ensure gap-free medical coverage by enabling
newly-released Medicaid-eligible ex-offenders to re-enroll with
Medicaid immediately, rather than waiting up to six weeks to resume
The staff of the House of Corrections is not left out. "I can see
the stresses. I want to instill the pride that our office deserves
to feel," Koutoujian says. "The mark of a good shift is when
nothing bad happens. It's hard to take that home every night."
Breaking the cycle
After taking office, Koutoujian established a policy prohibiting
campaign contributions made by employees or having them solicit
campaign contributions from others. "The sheriff's office is
powerful," he says. "I'm trying to set it up so the organization
runs itself. [Decisions] can't be considered to be arbitrary and
capricious." He has also established a chain of command to further
Koutoujian's long involvement in victims' rights advocacy is
balanced by an awareness that offenders are eventually returned to
the community, where they will need a fair chance to rebuild their
lives. Between 25 and 30 percent of inmates don't have a high
school diploma or a GED. Eighty percent of them have a drug or
alcohol addiction and 50 percent are on prescriptive, mood-altering
As the head of a correctional system that employs 800 and has
custody of 1,400 inmates and/or detainees, Koutoujian sees the post
as a chance to help offenders break behavioral cycles that might
otherwise persist for generations. "I have a window in their lives
at a time when they may be more thoughtful and open [to change],"
he says. When he talks about a particular inmate who is/was "in my
custody," it's not just a legal term.
Victims' rights advocacy is a longstanding interest for him. In
2006, as a lawmaker and chair of the Joint Committee on Public
Health, he introduced HB 878, a bill to codify the certification,
program administration and clinical protocols of the Sexual Assault
Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, provides specially trained and
certified credentialed nurses who examine rape and sexual assault
victims of any age in a way that preserves patient dignity. SANE
staffers go to the emergency room and conduct medical exams and
forensically-sound, and which have yielded a successful prosecution
rate in the 95 percent to 100 percent range.
"SANE was dying on the vine for years," Koutoujian says. Janet
Fine, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Victim
Assistance (MOVA) and one of the members of the transition team,
credits Koutoujian with helping not only to codify SANE, but also
for getting it a spot on the state budget.
Elissa Flynn-Poppey, another transition team member and an
attorney with the Boston office of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky
and Popeo LLP says that right up until his swearing-in as sheriff,
Koutoujian was filing legislation on behalf of sexual assault
Victim-advocacy used to be considered a women's issue, Koutoujian
says, and in conferences on the subject, he would often be the only
man in the room. "It's changing," he says, "but
The Big Picture
Koutoujian is a lifelong native of Waltham, where his
grandparents and great-grandparents started their lives in the
United States. His Armenian grandparents sought refuge there in the
time of the Armenian genocide; his Irish great-grandparents cleaned
apartments on Beacon Hill. And today, he says, their great-grandson
has served in the Statehouse.
Janet Fine commends Koutoujian's balanced perspective on
legislative matters. "He has a keen big picture sense, the ability
to strike balance and understanding how to help people [grasp] that
big picture." Additionally, she says, he has always sought input
and guidance from those on the front lines, no matter what their
professional disciplines, to help inform his position as a
Flynn-Poppey and Koutoujian are both alumni of Bridgewater State
University (though not in the same graduating class). It was in
part through their pro bono work that the state colleges have
gotten university status, she says.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo thinks Koutoujian's legislative
service will be an advantage in his new job.
"For years, Peter was a steadfast advocate for his district,
fighting daily for the people of Waltham, Newton and Watertown.
During his tenure in the House, Peter served his constituents and
the people of Massachusetts with dedication and compassion, taking
a leading role on issues from health care to - more recently -
school nutrition and the renaming of our state's public colleges,"
DeLeo said. "I've had the pleasure to serve alongside Peter in the
House for more than a decade, and I know that he brings a wealth of
experience and integrity to his new office."
"Peter burst onto Beacon Hill as an energetic and diligent
young legislator," says Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer
and chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association.
"His experiences as a member of the MBA and as someone
intimately familiar with the intricacies of lawyering made him
a natural as a rising star amongst his peers. I know Peter worked
well with every leadership team at the Statehouse, and his open and
accessible style will bring him great success as sheriff."
"By all accounts, he hit the ground running," says House Majority
Whip Charles Murphy (D-Burlington), who was elected to the
Legislature the same year as Koutoujian. "He has the skill set
needed, he's smart, he knows how to listen and how to talk to
people." Murphy notes that the new sheriff has been received
favorably both in the law enforcement side of the aisle and the
prosecutor's office. On the transition, he observes, "It was a very
politically charged atmosphere. It's gone very well; it could have
gone very poorly if not handled appropriately."
Koutoujian says that it's a tough time to be a legislator, due to
the economic and political climates. He says he was relieved at the
positive media coverage that followed his arrival at the Sheriff's
Department. "It dispelled the notion that legislators are not
qualified to do anything else," he says.