Berkshire Juvenile Court has new juvenile probation chief

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PITTSFIELD — James Hunt has a new office, but he hasn't made the move from his old one just yet.

Hunt, the longtime assistant juvenile probation chief, received word from Boston on Monday that he had been appointed to the top post, replacing William Gale, whom he worked under since the Berkshire Juvenile Court was founded in 1997.

"I'm doing three jobs right now," Hunt, 56, said on Thursday in the office he has worked from since 2012. "We had an assistant chief retire in the winter. The [former] chief left at the end of May."

Hunt's office was lined with documents, photos, artwork and memorabilia that he has collected during his more than two decades with the probation department. He'll be moving down the hall in the coming weeks.

"I have a thousand things to learn," he said of his new role, adding that he has been assigned a mentor in Springfield.

Having served for so long as assistant chief, Hunt is more than familiar with the many duties of a probation officer, and has supervised the caseloads of the six in Berkshire County for many years.

As chief, though, there will be added administrative and personnel duties. By Thanksgiving, he expects that the state will appoint at least one assistant chief to the office.

A chief probation officer's starting salary is $128,673.10, according to Coria Holland, communications director for the Massachusetts Probation Service.

Hunt, a city resident and former Pittsfield Police officer, talked proudly about the culture within the juvenile probation department in Berkshire County and its officers, who take a real interest in improving the lives of children who end up at their door.

"Our philosophy is, when somebody leaves, they should be better off than when they came in the door," Hunt said. "That's not a universal view in some parts of the state, but Berkshire County is a unique place. We're the only county in the state that has the programs we offer."

Under Gale, the probation office began offering educational programming in lieu of juvenile sentencing. That programming started with the "Shakespeare in the Courts" partnership with Shakespeare & Company, and has grown to include other theaters and mentor programs through colleges.

For those young people whose interests might not fit in one of the programs already established, Hunt and other members of the department have gotten creative, going as far as buying teens sports gear and working with coaches to get them a spot on local teams.

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"The whole thing with the juvenile court is not to treat people like criminals; it's to offer aid, encouragement and guidance," Hunt said. "That's what makes the juvenile court separate from the other courts."

As the Berkshire District Attorney's Office fine-tunes its new juvenile diversion program, an effort to keep children from being formally arraigned in court, the office and probation department are working collaboratively to share resources and programming.

With criminal justice reform and changing demographics in the county, the juvenile probation department has seen the number of delinquency cases drop significantly.

The number of care and protection cases, though, in which probation officers are assigned to the homes of children who have Department of Children and Families involvement, has risen.

With those cases, probation officers travel the county to conduct home visits, ensuring that they have safe living conditions.

"We're independent," Hunt said. "We don't work with the Department of Children and Families. We don't work with the defense attorneys."

When visiting the homes, even in delinquency or truancy cases, probation officers can assess whether the child or the family needs additional resources to improve their lives.

The reason or charge that brings children to the juvenile court is usually "a symptom of a bigger issue," Hunt said, whether that's mental illness, domestic violence or drug addiction.

When probation officers are able to identify the real issue, they can work with community resources and other agencies to address it, he said.

"People respond. People work as a team," he said. "You do what you need to do to get these kids help. We all try to work in the same direction."

Overall, the office staff uses evidence-based practices to remove any barriers keeping children from a successful path forward.

"We smash them," he said.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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