Scott MacKay Commentary: Where To Put The Probation Office?

Feb 7, 2014

The plan to locate a state probation office on Fountain Street in downtown Providence is dead. But RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the debate on where it ought to go may be just beginning.

Downtown Providence, recently proposed as a location for a state probitition office.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / RIPR

After an outcry ignited by Angus Davis, one of Rhode Island’s top young high-tech entrepreneurs, Governor Lincoln Chafee’s administration has pulled back a proposal to move a state probation office from a gritty South Providence neighborhood to a downtown venue nestled among the Providence Journal Building, The Rhode Island Convention Center and the Providence Biltmore Hotel.

The location, at 40 Fountain Street, also happens to be near the Dorrance Street headquarters of Swipely, the Internet business data-mining company founded by Davis that Forbes Magazine recently gushed is "one of America’s most promising companies."

If downtown Providence needs anything, it is such a company. Davis’ firm has 80 employees in a high-tech industry more associated with Silicon Valley or Cambridge than our state’s old-timey capital city, where the iconic architecture harkens to the Jazz Age.

Davis has been joined in this crusade by much of the business community, including the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Davis lamented that putting the probation office on Fountain Street would "be detrimental to tourism, economic development, and most concerning to me, the safety of my employees."

Truth be told, there is scant evidence that a downtown probation office would have any impact on crime or the safety of Swipely employees. Common sense and state correctional officials tell us that those on probation are very unlikely to commit a crime in front of their probation or parole officer. A Swipely employee is far more likely to bump into trouble at one of the night clubs frequented by the young hipweoise in the city.

Davis also said the Fountain Street location should be dedicated to its "highest and best use," which isn’t as a probation office.  That’s a nice sentiment, but the office space in question is currently vacant.

State Corrections Commissioner A.T. Wall says that ex-offenders on parole or probation do not cause problems for local citizens or police. But he said he agrees with Chafee that the "level of anger" generated by opposition to the location would have made it difficult "for us to function there."

"Any incident that might have occurred would have been attributed to the location of that office," says Wall.

Davis also complained about the lack of a public bidding and review process. On this level, he has valid concerns. The state began looking around for a new place for the office because it is losing the space at its current location on Prairie Avenue in a seen-better days section of the South Side. The Chafee administration did not hold public hearings or seek comments from nearby landowners. Now, the governor has ordered the process to be reopened and put out to bid.

State Administration Director Richard Licht says a new venue will likely be chosen with the next six weeks.

Which begs the larger question: where should we as a society locate government functions that few want in our back yards?

Providence has the transportation network that ex-offenders so rely on. Indeed, the RIPTA bus hub is barely  a pitching wedge from the proposed Fountain Street venue. And the city already has places where those who have broken the law congregate every day: Two state court houses, a federal court and the public defenders’ office, as well as the lairs of scores of criminal defense lawyers.

And why should social service agencies, low-income housing projects and correctional operations be packed into struggling neighborhoods? Davis acknowledges that the concerns of a mother for her child’s "opportunity to thrive in her neighborhood are every bit as valid as mine about the Kennedy Plaza we are all working so hard to revitalize together."

Our society and indeed our state are already too segregated along class and racial lines.  Too many policies that seem to make money-saving sense for taxpayers, such as having one school district for Bristol County and one for Aquidneck Island, are said to be politically unpalatable because wealthier parents do not want their children in the same classrooms with the less privileged.

We all want a thriving city, but one that reflects the 21st Century reality of our diverse state. Walling off those the swells see as the "other" is not a solution. Downtown is for more than those wearing Brooks Brothers and Talbots and boozy conventioneers.

Davis seems like a bright and valuable contributor to our capital city’s new economy. Maybe it is time to enlist him and other like-minded business people to help forge a reasonable solution to a  prickly problem.