Window of opportunity: Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian

Issue May 2011 By Christina P. O'Neill

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 coverage.

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 empower staffers.

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 drugs.

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 victims.

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 slowly."

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 leader.

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.