Kids Behind Bars

Maine’s youth correctional system has gone from abysmal to awe-inspiring.

By Jeff Clark

“Barbaric.” “Medieval.” “The Dark Ages.” Those are the words people use to describe the Maine juvenile justice system of fifteen or more years ago. The Maine Youth Center in South Portland was the target of federal investigations and multiple lawsuits for alleged mistreatment of young offenders. Newspaper articles routinely portrayed the system as badly broken and in need of reform. Legislators railed against it on the floor of the House.

Today Maine’s youth corrections system routinely earns high marks and praise from national review organizations. Other states send delegations to the Long Creek and Mountain View juvenile facilities to learn modern techniques for dealing with young offenders, methods that don’t include isolation rooms and restraint chairs. Legislators, attorneys who specialize in defending youths, prosecutors, and outside experts agree that Maine now has one of the best juvenile justice systems in the country.

“It didn’t take a genius to see that change was needed,” recalls Bartlett H. “Barry” Stoodley, associate commissioner for juvenile services in the Department of Corrections (DOC). “The Maine Youth Center had more than 250 kids in the old days, housed in cottages that were pretty abysmal by anyone’s standards.”

Stoodley started with DOC in 1971 as a probation officer and worked his way up to his current position in 2000 — without somehow becoming enmeshed in the old “lock ’em up and beat ’em down” culture that permeated the department in those days. Instead he became a student of juvenile correctional research, and today he frequently presents talks at juvenile justice conferences around the country.

Stoodley credits Governor Angus King with both finding the money needed for improvements and “bringing in people inclined to positive change. . . . He took a look at [juvenile] corrections and decided significant improvements were needed.” A new juvenile detention facility was created, Long View Youth Development Center, on the grounds of the old Maine Youth Center in South Portland, while another facility, Mountain View Youth Development Center, was built adjacent to the Charleston Correctional Facility in Charleston. Mountain View is used mostly for older juveniles and for so-called “shock sentences,” brief periods of incarceration that hopefully will push a young offender in the right direction by showing him or her the results of the wrong direction.

At the same time, Stoodley and others brought in new policies based on extensive research. Evidence-based practices used methods that demonstrably achieved results reflected in both lower recidivism rates and behavioral changes. “If it’s not an evidence-based practice, it’s probably not working,” Stoodley explains. “It’s just something that feels good for the staff or the public.”

They also brought in a system called “Performance-based Standards,” an ongoing review and assessment program created by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators that produced a steady improvement in addressing the needs of both the juvenile justice system and the youths involved in it. Using twice-yearly reports on more than one hundred different aspects of youth incarceration and management, the Braintree, Massachusetts-based group encouraged DOC to address the department’s problems and bring in new techniques, such as collaborative problem solving and negotiation strategies, that reduced the conflict between staff and offenders.

At the same time, expectations were increased for offenders that required more of them than just keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. Juveniles now have to meet certain goals in their educational progress and social development.

“We want to see kids leave our system in a better place than when they came in,” Stoodley says. “We sort out the strengths of each kid and play to them.”

Mostly, though, they wrought a complete culture change within the juvenile justice system. “We looked outside Maine and our system for information,” Stoodley notes. “We did and used huge amounts of research.”

It was not an easy process. Starting in the late 1990s, staff members were trained in new techniques for assessing and controlling their charges that did not rely so heavily on physical punishment for misbehavior. They were taught “verbal judo” methods to prevent confrontations or de-escalate existing ones. Use of isolation rooms and restraint chairs was de-emphasized and gradually phased out.

Not everyone agreed with the new methods. “Staff turnover during that process was almost 20 percent a year at one point,” Stoodley admits. “Now it’s 3 to 5 percent.”

DOC wasn’t the only place that saw a culture change. “Absolutely there was a culture shift in the legislature, too,” declares Representative Anne Haskell, who has served six terms in the Maine House since 1988 and has made juvenile corrections something of a specialty. “There was a social shift in Maine, and it has been reflected in the legislature. We recognized that kids do dumb things, sometimes things they need to be punished for. But let’s not throw out a good individual for one thoughtless event.”

Legislators recognized that research showed what worked and what didn’t, and the DOC produced results using that research. “There’s nothing the legislature likes better than results,” Haskell quips.

Haskell admits that she was concerned last year when Governor Paul LePage’s choice for DOC commissioner, Joseph Ponte, admitted in testimony before the legislature that he had no experience with juvenile justice. “I voted against him because of that,” she says, “but he has not only embraced but enhanced and fully supported the program.”

Along the way, the DOC and the state court system instituted new policies for young offenders, especially first-timers. “I would say at least 60 to 70 percent, probably more, of kids cited for violating the law never make it to my office,” says Christine Thibeault, the assistant district attorney for Cumberland County Juvenile Justice Division. “The DOC diverts them into alternative programs. And I like it like that.”

Juveniles who come to Thibeault’s attention “have had prior contact with the law or have needs that require court oversight,” she explains. She takes three things into consideration when prosecuting a juvenile. “Public safety comes first,” she says. “What do we need to do to keep the juvenile from re-offending? Then accountability. What do we need to do to hold the juvenile accountable to the victim and the community? They need to understand that their behavior has a ripple effect on the community. Third is competency development — educational or vocational success, family support, perhaps addressing mental health issues.”

Those are all major shifts from sixteen years ago, when Thibeault started as a juvenile prosecutor. “Our juvenile justice system is much more reflective of an understanding of juvenile development,” she explains. “It’s not as skewed toward a criminal justice system. We recognize the difference between adult criminal behavior and juvenile criminal behavior.”

Portland attorney Edwin “Ned” Chester has specialized in defending juvenile suspects for more than twenty-five years, and he admits that he misses the old Maine Youth Center days when the facility didn’t have a fence around it, as Long View does today. “On the other hand, if you look at the philosophy of the department and how it approaches juvenile justice, it has been a complete sea change,” he says.

The focus today is on developing a treatment program for offenders, Chester says, whether they are diverted into one before court action or afterwards during incarceration. “Under the old system, as long as you kept your head down and played the game, you got out,” he says. “The new system has not only behavioral goals but also treatment goals. Plus there’s a big focus on planning for the transition back into the community. Maybe the success is debatable, but by God at least [the DOC] understands the problem now. They are much more sensitive today.”

Gone are the days when a youngster could end up incarcerated for a minor offense. “You’ve got to really work at it to get here these days,” says Rodney Bouffard, superintendent of the Long View juvenile facility. Although the facility has a capacity of 163 inmates, Bouffard says his census often drops below one hundred. In mid-June, Long View had ninety-eight residents, with seventy in Mountain View.

Bouffard came to the facility as security chief when it first opened in 2000, after a career in mental health work. He recalls that seclusion and restraint chair use “was very high in the old days. They had kids locked up for significant amounts of time. Kids were restrained for significant amounts of time.”

Both methods generated considerable controversy and more than one lawsuit in the 1990s. With the new facility came new methods of dealing with confrontations and troubled juveniles. “We use motivational interviewing and problem solving to deal with issues,” Bouffard says. “How do you deal with kids when they get upset; how to deal with kids before they get upset.”

In 1998 the Maine Youth Center logged 470 restraint chair episodes, Bouffard says. “The last time we used it was February 2011. Seclusions have gone from 285 in 2003 to 15 in 2011, and where seclusion could last for days before, now it’s rarely more than four hours. We just don’t need to use those methods anymore.”

The differences are reflected in the state’s recidivism rates. Nationally, offenders who are first incarcerated as youths have re-incarceration rates as adults as high as 80 percent in some states. One recent major report, No Place for Kids, notes that available studies show re-incarceration rates in either juvenile or adult institutions ranging from 26 to 62 percent within the first three years of release.

Bouffard says Maine’s juvenile recidivism rate has dropped from roughly 95 percent to about 20 percent over the past decade, and that includes all later contacts with law enforcement, not just re-incarceration.

No system is perfect. Chris Northrop, a professor at the University of Maine Law School and a founder of the New England Juvenile Defender Center, believes there is still too much reliance on incarceration, a problem he recognizes as caused in part by the lack of community programs for juvenile offenders. He also criticizes the lack of community resources for young people who can no longer live at home, particularly young girls. “They end up on the street, and then they end up in the courts,” he says.

Nonetheless Northrop, who has traveled the country consulting with and inspecting other state juvenile justice systems, credits Maine with having one of the best. “I’m always very happy to come home to Maine,” he says. “The goal of any juvenile justice system should be to treat the kids like they were your own, and Maine comes the closest to that goal that I’ve seen.”