A funny thing happened on Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte’s way through the confirmation process.

While frankly assessing his own qualifications for the job, Ponte acknowledged that he had little experience with juvenile corrections. But he said that should not be too much of a problem because juvenile treatment is already a strength of Maine’s system.

While that is true, you don’t need to have a very long memory to recall when it was a very different story.

In the mid-1990s, the Maine Youth Center in South Portland was the subject of complaints of systematic abuse of its residents. In 1998, Maine became the focus of a letter-writing campaign by Amnesty International for alleged overuse of isolation and restraints. A year later, a consultant hired by the state issued a scathing report, describing a “prison-like culture.”

In 2003, a 23-year-old former inmate known in court papers as “Michael T.” sued the state.

He alleged that he had suffered permanent injury as a result of stretches in an isolation cell that lasted up to 87 days and periods tied down in restraints that lasted as long as 49 hours during a series of commitments to the youth center beginning when he was 13. In 2004, the state settled the suit for $600,000 and also stepped up its reform efforts, which were already under way.

Behavior modification techniques took the place of restraints and isolation cells, turning the two Maine juvenile corrections centers that replaced the old Maine Youth Center, Long Creek in South Portland and Mountain View in Charleston, into national models for facilities that turn at-risk youth’s lives around.

The 15-month recidivism rate at Long Creek dropped from 40 percent to 15 percent.

This did not happen overnight and was the result of a lot of hard work and commitment by state officials and staff, along with the dedication of volunteers from the community. They are delivering a program that puts rehabilitation ahead of punishment as the top priority.

It’s good that the new commissioner sees juvenile corrections as a strength of his department, but he shouldn’t forget that this hasn’t always been the case. He also should know that it will take more hard work and dedication to prevent a return to the environment that produced “Michael T.”

 


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