STABLE NUMBERS The once ever-rising corrections budget has been stabilized, a change helped by the reduction last year of guard overtime expenses by $2.4 million.
PROBATION Ponte has hired 12 assistants to aid probation officers with paperwork and to oversee low-risk probationers. This should enable officers to spend more time helping people on probation "do well," he said — instead of just catching them in violations. Caseloads have been as much as 120 per officer. The goal is to cut the number in half. "We're just starting to see the drop in the caseloads," he said.
Half the inmates in prison are there because of probation violations. Instead of routinely sending violators to prison, Ponte is trying to reduce the number by using "sanctions" such as, for missing an appointment, a geographical restriction on movement.
YOUTHFUL OFFENDERS Under the theory that what works for people under 18 will work for those 18 to 25, Ponte wants to create a Youthful Offender Program at the Mountain View youth center, in Charleston, for the 60 to 80 "most challenging" prisoners in this age group. He's asking the Legislature to authorize it, but said he can implement it without new funding. This program would be on the "cutting edge" nationally.
STAFF RESISTANCE "Change is difficult," Ponte said. He believes he's overcoming staff resistance to his reforms — seen in the unusual defense by a union spokesperson of a management official, Warden Barnhart. But Ponte admitted he needed to have more conversations with prison employees. Still, "I don't see any big revolt." Guards used to get hurt, he noted, during cell extractions. "The staff see it's better for them" with the new ways.
STAFF PAY FREEZE Ponte noted that the state-worker pay freeze makes for "difficult conversations," and "I don't have an answer to that." The governor and Legislature determine the budget.
AND PERSONALLY Ponte said he has the failing of trying "to do too much too quick."
The juvenile offender model
Bartlett "Barry" Stoodley, 68, who retired February 1 as associate commissioner for juvenile services after 42 years at the DOC, credits independent Governor Angus King with pushing for corrections reform, more than a dozen years ago. The scandal-ridden Long Creek youth facility was a major concern.
The quiet-voiced Stoodley was appointed to run the juvenile system in 2000. "You had to be blind and in a hole 20 feet deep" not to think something was wrong with the old system, he said in an interview.
Long Creek's staff, he said, first responded to reform with, "You've taken our tools." Stoodley described how its new chief, Rodney Bouffard, who had run the Augusta Mental Health Institute, "would demonstrate personally" how to implement new ideas. "De-escalation" — talking to unruly young people — was used instead of placing them in the restraint chair.
Long Creek became less violent and returnees fewer. "Leadership is critical," Stoodley said.
Stoodley spread reform to the new youth center at Mountain View. Now, continuing with Bouffard's appointment as the new acting warden of the state prison, Ponte is rolling out this gentler approach to adult prisoners. Stoodley said research shows the "principles of effective intervention" work for both juvenile and adult populations.
Ponte has been "like a sponge" for new ideas, he said.
Prison watchdogs on Ponte