Koutoujian Feels Prepared For Sheriff Job

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WATERTOWN, Mass. — Peter Koutoujian sees himself as a good fit as the new Middlesex County sheriff, suggesting that his years of work in the state legislature, his background as a lawyer and prosecutor, as well as work with crime victims have prepared him for this new chapter of his life.

“I was a prosecutor in Middlesex County for five years [1991-1995] under Tom Reilly. I’ve been involved with victims’ rights and worked with a program called REACH, which deals with domestic violence. My degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School is part of my experience, too. I feel that everything I’ve learned has prepared me for this job.”

Koutoujian, 49, is completing the term of the late Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola, who tragically committed suicide in late November, after questions were raised regarding his collecting a high salary as well as a yearly pension as a retired police officer. Koutoujian was appointed on January 14 by Gov. Deval Patrick to fill out DiPaola’s term.

Koutoujian had been a state representative until his appointment. He intends to seek a full term as sheriff in November 2012, after he completes DiPaola’s term.

Koutoujian (D-Waltham), who served in the Massachusetts State Legislature since 1996, said he actively sought the appointment when he heard that DiPaola was planning to retire, before his death.

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He said, “It’s the value I see in the job that made me want to do it. A few people approached me and encouraged me to seek the appointment.”

One perk of Koutoujian’s new job will be to open and close the commencement ceremonies at Harvard University. This task is written into the state’s constitution and the sheriff has been performing this ceremonial duty since the position was defined in 1643.

Koutoujian, who received a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said, “As an alum, I’ll get a kick out of this.”

Koutoujian says the three components of the job are the public safety of the inmates and then the community, with the third priority preparing prisoners to re-enter the general population.

“The average stay of an inmate is about 240 days. Most people are in the country system for drugs, domestic violence or [operating under the influence] OUIs. People who are sentenced for felonies go to Cedar Junction in Walpole or to Concord. We need to do much more to prepare people for reentry in order to reduce recidivism,” he said.

Most of the sheriff’s budget goes to pay for salaries, but Koutoujian would like to see more money devoted to programs and education.

The sheriff’s office has a relationship with local police and can provide a SWAT team, a canine unit, help with warrant apprehension. It also can offer the use of a command vehicle and a mobile ballistic unit.

“Our dogs can help detect drugs in the schools,” Koutoujian said.

The sheriff’s office also has a collaborative relationship with both parole and probation although no jurisdiction in either area.

“We sometimes hold parole hearings at Billerica, and with probation, we will oversee the release of prisoners and run drug tests,” he added.

Koutoujian’s district as state representative included half of Waltham, three precincts in Newton and one precinct in Watertown. As sheriff of Middlesex County, he will preside over the tenth most populous county in the country, with a population of 1.7 million. The county includes 54 cities and towns.

Koutoujian says he saw the opportunity to have a greater impact by playing an executive rather than a legislative role.

He said, “When you’re in the legislature, you’re part of a deliberative body, and things can move very slowly. Now, I am, in effect, the CEO, with a budget of $65 million and a workforce of 900 employees. I can make decisions and move things on much more quickly.”

The primary responsibility of the sheriff (the word derives from the Old English “shire reeve,” which means the keeper of the peace) is to run the country jails. There are two in Middlesex County — the House of Corrections in Billerica and the jail in Cambridge. The Billerica facility, which was built to house 300 prisoners, now accommodates 800 men, while the Cambridge location houses about 600. Both locations suffer from overcrowding, a condition Koutoujian says must be addressed. The Cambridge building will probably be vacated some time in the future, as the building has been cited for asbestos violations. The courts once housed in the building have already moved.

The sheriff’s office also provides courtroom security, for the transportation of prisoners and serves warrants for arrest. Although country government was severely reduced in 1997, the sheriff’s position and Registry of Deeds were preserved as part of the county system.

There will be a special election to fill Koutoujian’s former seat. The primary is to take place on April 10 and the general election will be held May 10. There are several Democrats running in the primary, including John Lawn of Waltham and Newton Alderman Alan Ciccone. There is likely to be a Republican, James Dixon of Waltham, running in the general election.

“I am sorry there is no Armenian in the race,” said Koutoujian, “and I wish someone would run.”

With Koutoujian leaving the legislature, there is no Armenian currently serving in either the House or the Senate. Former state Rep. Rachel Kaprielian left the House two years ago to take over the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

“[State Rep.] John Hecht and [state Sen.] Steve Tolman will be running the Genocide Commemoration Day at the State House,” said Koutoujian, “and I am sure they will do a very good job. Of course, I will stay on the committee and help in any way that I can.”

He has already been on the thrice-a-day roll calls for both the Billerica and Cambridge facilities, and has ordered an audit of the sheriff’s department. He will be attending a meeting of the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association on March 9-10 and has called a meeting of his transition team, which includes victims’ rights advocates, correctional experts, local police and the secretary of public safety to examine current and future policies.

Koutoujian said, “I love this job and I am not shy about saying my parents are very proud of me. For an Armenian-American to hold this position, which dates all the way back to the 17th century, it is a great honor.”