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Amplifying the Mission

Sheriff Peter Koutoujian’s service is rooted deeply and firmly in gratitude.

Even two decades later, one of the most accomplished, respected and emulated sheriffs in America pauses to regain his composure when he thinks back to an August 2000 morning, walking across the Harvard Bridge to Cambridge for his first day of orientation at the Kennedy School.

Peter Koutoujian was just two generations removed from grandparents who had fled the Armenian genocide to seek refuge here. He was a working-class Waltham kid who had parlayed a public high school and Bridgewater State education into a New England Law degree and young career as a prosecutor and state representative.

And now, as members of the Harvard crew rowed beneath him on the sun-sparked Charles River, he was literally steps away from the educational promised land. He cried.

“I just remember thinking how proud my grandfather would have been to know that his grandson was able to go to Harvard University, and how proud my dad was that his son was able to go to Harvard University,” said Koutoujian, who has been Middlesex County Sheriff since January 2011. “I still get emotional thinking about that.”

And as sure as he is regarding the particulars of that postcard morning walk from the Back Bay to Cambridge, he is just as clear about the organization to whom he owes thanks for it.

“If it wasn’t for the Rappaports, I’m certain I never would have attended the Kennedy School,” said Koutoujian, whose Rappaport Fellowship funded the tuition for his two-year, midcareer program there. “I utter Jerry Rappaport’s name every time I get the chance.”

Buoyed in large measure by the education, experiences and connections that came with that Harvard Kennedy School education, Koutoujian now oversees a department that encompasses 700 employees, a $70 million budget, five unions, up to 1,000 incarcerated individuals in a geographic area of 54 municipalities and 1.6 million residents.

He is also President of the Major County Sheriffs of America, a two-year post that will take him through the end of 2021. It’s an organization of over 100 sheriffs from across the country, representing more than 120 million Americans.

And in November 2020, he was appointed to a newly formed national steering committee to guide Justice Counts, the largest, most comprehensive effort to improve the availability and utility of criminal justice data to date.

Which is all to say his position carries plenty of opportunity to not only utter Jerry Rappaport’s name, but to build on his legacy as well.

In that context, Koutoujian is reminded of a church bulletin board he drives by with his daughter each day, which carries a Robert Louis Stevenson quote: “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.”

“I mean, no one has planted a harvest like Jerry Rappaport, right?” he said. “He uses that to create more seeds, and I’m one of those seeds, who can then plant more seeds. His is an influence that will ripple through generations.”

As well-positioned as he is now to amplify that name and its mission of public service, Koutoujian would admit that his is something of an unlikely success story. He was a less-than-inspired student at Waltham High and Bridgewater State, and that led to less-than-inspiring prospects following his college graduation in 1983.

“It was a dark time for me,” he said. “No passion, and no pathway.”

He held a series of jobs before being struck by the notion that law school was the next logical move. His unremarkable undergraduate transcript, however, meant it would take three years and a fortunate boost from New England Law’s chairman of the board, Judge Jim Lawton, before he got that chance.

With revitalized prospects, Koutoujian decided it would be the last time he left his destiny to good luck. “I was going to make the most of it,” he said. “I was never going to miss the opportunity to do something important again.”

He grew to love the grueling nature of law school, and his 1989 graduation led to work as a public defender, a Middlesex County prosecutor, a professorship at Massachusetts School of Law and then, in 1996, a successful run for state representative in which he pulled off the rare feat of beating an incumbent in the primary.

Koutoujian served for 10 years, proudly chairing committees under three different Speakers of the House, before he learned about the Kennedy School and his potential ticket there: a Rappaport Fellowship.

“It was a crazy time, and quite honestly it would have been unaffordable to me,” he said. “I heard about the Fellowship, and I jumped at the chance.”

Meanwhile, life was still happening, and Koutoujian’s two-year program at the Kennedy School would by bookended nicely by it: marriage in the first week of school, and the birth of their first child soon after graduating with his Master in Public Administration degree in 2002.

“I just remember thinking how proud my grandfather would have been to know that his grandson was able to go to Harvard University, and how proud my dad was that his son was able to go to Harvard University. I still get emotional thinking about that.”

Sheriff Peter Koutoujian

It would be the turn of the decade before Koutoujian’s next opportunity presented itself, and even though he knew little about the work of a sheriff and admittedly “never for a moment wanted to be one,” he learned, ruminated, and decided it could be the ideal way to put his Kennedy School experience to the best use.

“It’s one of the purest forms of helping people who were broken, who needed that help, who have been neglected,” he said. “I thought, maybe I could be the one that could provide something for them.”

That Koutoujian has, and three Middlesex Jail programs in particular have been the hallmarks of his tenure as sheriff:

  • Borrowing from the empathy derived from his years as a young adult who at the time wasn’t prepared to make mature life decisions, Koutoujian partnered with the Vera Institute of Justice and created the People Achieving Change Together (PACT) unit. PACT takes a new approach to living and working conditions for young offenders (ages 18-24), using a model of community-building, trust, conflict resolution and life-skill education to decrease recidivism in an age group at the highest risk for becoming repeat offenders.
  • Koutoujian’s appreciation for the military, based in part on the service of his father and two uncles, led him to start the Housing Unit for Military Veterans (HUMV), a therapeutic unit exclusively for military veterans. It’s the only one of its kind in New England and one of very few in the country, again with an emphasis on an environment that increases the odds of a productive return to society and decreases recidivism.
  • The jail’s Medication Assisted Treatment program uses a “whole-patient” approach of medications, counseling and behavioral therapies to fight opioid overdose and prevent relapse. Koutoujian’s experience with the program, in fact, led to his teaching a master’s class on the opioid epidemic at UMass-Lowell.

All of that work, and more, done under Koutoujian is unique in its innovation and reliance on data, which has made it a model of best practices nationally. It’s a model, he said, that was driven by his experience at the Kennedy School. It also informed his approach to the pandemic, whereby his office used both operational and medical systems, and the help of an infectious disease physician, to create daily reports and plans to combat the crisis.

“It was one of our greatest hours,” he said.

He’s proud of the work. He’s proud of the incredible team around him (“savvy and passionate and talented and team-driven,” he says) – many of whom have been on board since migrating from the Massachusetts State House 10 years ago. He’s proud that his grandfather would be proud.

And he’s particularly proud, and grateful, to be part of an ever-extended Rappaport family that continues to plant its seeds.

“We’ve actually changed corrections across the entire country, and that’s now a part of the Rappaport legacy,” he said. “The Rappaports have allowed me to become an amplifier for their mission, and I thank them for that.”