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Barbalunga says Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler has failed to deliver over 12 years as race heats up

Alf Barbalunga.
Alf Barbalunga
Alf Barbalunga.

Alf Barbalunga is the Chief Probation Officer of the Southern Berkshire District Court. It’s the second-largest in Massachusetts, comprising 15 towns in the southwestern corner of the state. Now, the 50-year-old is challenging Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler in the September 6th Democratic primary. Bowler is seeking a third six-year term. Over 20 years in law enforcement, Barbalunga has worked for both the Berkshire and Suffolk County sheriffs’ offices, and was the youngest and longest-serving president of the Massachusetts Chief Probation Officer Association until he stepped down in May. Barbalunga won the 2022 Chief Probation Officer Advocacy Award this spring. He tells WAMC that under Bowler’s leadership, the community isn’t seeing results around education and treatment for detainees in the sheriff’s care — and that the office is overspending in the wrong areas.

BARBALUNGA: In a pure world, that job should be strictly care and custody. I come in as an inmate or detainee to that office, I should leave as good as I came in, ideally better. A real low bar thing is, I should come back out alive. That's important for sure. And what does that look like? If I'm sentenced, as opposed to being a detainee, or I'm just awaiting my day of justice, I should be afforded with treatment, education, whether that's a GED, healthcare issues, psychological and physical, and also skill sets, because 98% of these people, Josh, that are going in are coming back out into our community. They're not going to be going to a DOC facility for five years or longer, up to life. These are at the most 30 months in. There's some rare exceptions, but pretty much the most, usually a lot less than that. They're coming back out, they're going to be your colleagues, your neighbors, maybe an employee, maybe a supervisor. So we need to arm them with skill sets to make them successful and try to reduce that recidivism rate going back in- Especially for the women, which you know, I can touch upon a little bit later. That money needs to be spent servicing these individuals, not an ancillary is topics that aren't charged to the sheriff. And that would be an example of- Horse programs. That would be something we would talk about. Is that good value being spent? Perhaps it is, perhaps it’s not. That's something we'll dig into later. Hydroponic programs. Is that appropriate, the amount of money we're spending on that and the staff we're spending? Perhaps. That's something we'll talk about later. But anything that's not directly charged with the custody of the inmate detainee- And again, that's keeping the person inside as they should be until they should be released, and also the care of what's happening while they're inside. Anything beside that deserves to be scrutinized, 100%. And, in our opinion, there needs to be some adjustments.

WAMC: You're running against Sheriff Tom Bowler, a two-term incumbent in the role. What's your assessment of his leadership in the office to date?

He was put to a police officer, a detective. [Bowler] was hired at the [Berkshire County] House of Correction and Jail, I think, [in] 2002, 2000 or 2002, a two year period. That could be off, but it's close. For reasons only known to him, maybe he’ll explain later, he left. So I don't think that reflects well. He didn't stick up there with management. He went back to [the] Pittsfield PD. I think he brings a strong law enforcement background, and as always, we're always respectful for that. But in general, that's not the right person for the job. We need progressive candidates that- This election here, there should be six people running for it. Four people the least. It's challenging that I'm the only person that stepped up. It shows a little bit about the apathy in general, which is understandable. It also shows just, you know, the vitriol and toxicity that goes into politics. Many people don't want to expose themselves. But more troubling, in my opinion, it's the democracy here. We're coming from a culture out here that we encounter, that people say – and again, this is a message coming at me since 2015 – you don't want to run in a primary unless that's an open seat. That's not something you want to do, you don't want to take on an incumbent. I strongly disagree. But that's what we're dealing with is, these people get in, they believe they're anointed. The sheriff before him was in for 32 consecutive years, I believe. It looks like Tom's looking for at least 18 years, maybe more. I don't know. That's his choice. It's not my business. But we find that distressing. That's not how change happens. That's not how efficiency happens. I've already publicly stated, I'll self-impose term limits if we were honored enough to win. Nobody does that, but I strongly believe in it. In a perfect world, we could accomplish what we want to accomplish in the first six years. If not, two terms maximum. But I think he brings a law enforcement background, getting back to what you asked. With that, we’re off charge of what he's supposed to be doing: care and custody. And again, you'll see right now we're having a number of media releases about what he's going to do and what he's thinking about doing and who he's going to be hiring. I'm seeing a whole media blast and advertisements right now about hiring these individuals, and that individuals, and that's great stuff. But why is he compelled to do it now after having 12 years? When it gets to why he's managing like he is, it's not a mystery. He comes from a law enforcement background.

So you're talking about this approach that Bowler’s bringing to the table being heavily informed by his time in law enforcement. What is the contrast that you would provide to that approach?

I'm coming from probation. That's treatment. That's empathy. That's what we bring to the table. That's restorative justice. It's a whole different platform. Again, it gets back to, these people will be in the community. Just because there's no scrutiny, this population does not deserve to be just warehoused. That's really what it gets down to. And then in the 11th hour, when you actually have a candidate, that's when we start rolling out what you're going to do. That's not appropriate. When you have no scrutiny, that's when you should perform your best. Not when you have scrutiny, that's when you start to ballot up. And let's get to something like that: The women. It's basically outrageous they were shipped out to Hampden County. Now, that was a great move for Hampden County, for sure. Hampden County was building a state of the art women's facility. The sheriff at the time, that sheriff was a rock star, beloved out throughout Massachusetts. A great, great program. But that wasn't a good move for us. In that particular deal, that sheriff needed X amount of females coming in from around the state. And he made the calls to his sheriff colleagues and said, you know, this is what I need to get this building funded. And unfortunately for us, Tom Bowler agreed to that. Not a good deal for us on multiple fronts. One, these are women that are now three hours round trip out of our area. Their loved ones can't visit them. Their support services, their attorneys- you know, these are women that are usually at the ultimate disadvantage when it comes to criminal justice to begin with, and now they're ripped out of their community. That's pretty distressing. And again, there was no real media exposure about that, or why are you doing that? And that's just in general what happens with that office. People aren't dialed in because it's not transparent. And I understand why it's not transparent. If you're leading that office with some of that decision making, why would you advertise that? And secondly, as far back, I think, in 2011, there was a pretty massive lawsuit down in that facility that had to do with, unfortunately, women down there being taken advantage of being video recorded in compromising situations. Our sheriff knew here knew about that, and continued, starting 2014, sending women down there. So again, he's not complicit with any of that behavior by staff there, but he knew about it. I would never have done that. We've made a pledge, if we’re honored enough to win, forthwith these women return in January. There's an infrastructure up there to accommodate them. And I think it's also insulting to the treatment professionals in Berkshire County. Part of their mantra on why we ship them out was that that sheriff in Hampden County would deliver treatment service that Berkshire County couldn't accommodate. That's ridiculous. We have some of the best treatment clinicians in the state here. So that was pretty insulting to them. And secondly, as I said, we have the room. It's the lowest count in the history of the sheriff's office with a highest employee count ever.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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