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Why Maine is a leader in juvenile justice

Posted June 25, 2013, at 12:13 p.m.
Michael Rocque is the director of research at the Maine Department of Corrections and an adjunct faculty member of the University of Maine Sociology Department.
Michael Rocque is the director of research at the Maine Department of Corrections and an adjunct faculty member of the University of Maine Sociology Department.

The criminal justice system is often thought of as existing on a pendulum. Opinions about how the system should operate swing from one end of the spectrum to the other over time. In its early history, rehabilitation ruled the day in corrections. The prison was initially called a “penitentiary,” representing the idea that offenders would give penance, pray and leave a changed person. However, the pendulum swung the other way in the 1970s, when public sentiment moved toward the idea that offenders cannot be rehabilitated and punitive measures are best for society.

In recent years, the notion that “nothing works” to rehabilitate offenders has been challenged. This is just as true in the juvenile justice system, where numerous “evidence-based” programs have garnered impressive evidence that they can, in fact, significantly reduce problem behavior. Not only does the empirical research suggest rehabilitation works, but the public is increasingly in support of it as opposed to confinement-only.

More than 15 years ago, the University of Colorado’s “ Blueprints for Violence Prevention” (now the Blueprints for Youth Development) initiative selected 10 programs for delinquency prevention that they considered “models.” These programs were reviewed by experts to determine whether studies have shown positive effects on behavior. Research has also shown that these programs can result in significant cost-savings for taxpayers.

Despite this, state progress in implementing such programs and changing the standard operating procedures has been slow. Some states, however, are ahead of the curve, and Maine is one of those states.

As part of a project to assess state progress in implementing and sustaining evidence-based practices in juvenile justice, I worked with a team of nationally recognized experts to determine which states had done the most work in this area in order to learn how they did so. In the process of our work, we discovered that Maine has one of the highest per capita usage of these ‘Blueprints’ programs in the U.S. We then dug deeper into how Maine was able to accomplish this feat in the hopes that other locales could take something valuable away from what we learned.

Through a review of documents, evaluations and reports, as well as interviews with key stakeholders and players who have had a direct role in the process, we learned several factors that helped Maine get to this point. Our findings are described in more detail in an article to be published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, but several factors are worth highlighting. First, Maine was lucky (and continues to be) to have benefited from the leadership of several champions who recognized early on that juveniles should receive treatment that we know works, regardless of how things had been done in the past.

Individuals such as former Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections Joseph Lehman, former Associate Commissioner of Juvenile Services Mary Ann Saar, and particularly the recently retired Associate Commissioner of Juvenile Services Bartlett Stoodley started the difficult work of transforming the way Maine’s juvenile justice system operated. Specifically, they kept an eye on research trends and best practices across the nation and abroad. Importantly, they, along with other stakeholders were open to trying new things and were able to pilot novel approaches and programs. Once these programs were tested and well received, others could be put in place. The influence of these early champions cannot be overstated.

Other key factors included an openness to collaborative relationships with state agencies and organizations. These relationships are vital for the functioning and evaluation of the programs. The current administration in corrections, including Commissioner Joseph Ponte, has continued to support research and accountability, so we know whether the programs work. This level of buy-in and stakeholder support, we found, is critical to continue this important work, which is often challenging.

Maine uses several programs from the Blueprints list, including multidimensional treatment foster care, functional family therapy and multisystemic therapy. Each of these programs takes a tremendous amount of support and collaboration to succeed. They also require flexible and innovative uses of limited resources to maintain. Above all, they require leadership.

All of this work has had positive consequences. The approach has likely contributed to the finding that Maine’s juvenile reoffending rates continue to decline in this state. We should be proud of the work the DOC has done to not only keep us safer but become a national leader in the process.

Michael Rocque is the director of research at the Maine Department of Corrections and an adjunct faculty member of the University of Maine Sociology Department. He was not employed by the department at the time of this study. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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