Gov. Paul LePage on Monday appointed one of the three associate commissioners of the Department of Corrections to become the acting chief of the agency, filling a vacancy left by the outgoing commissioner, Joseph Ponte.

LePage named Joseph Fitzpatrick to take over for Ponte, who starting in April will become the commissioner of New York City’s jails, the second-largest jail system in the country with six times as many inmates as Maine.

“Dr. Fitzpatrick’s background and experience in the state’s prison system makes him an excellent choice to lead the department,” LePage said in a statement announcing his decision. “He has demonstrated strong leadership skills during his tenure at the Maine Department of Corrections, and I am confident he will continue his commitment to public service in his new role.”

Fitzpatrick has worked for the Department of Corrections for 20 years and most recently has been the department’s clinical director and associate commissioner for juvenile services.

Democratic leaders of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which has oversight of the Corrections Department, reached across party lines to applaud LePage’s decision.

“That would be my choice,” Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, who co-chairs the committee, said of Fitzpatrick’s appointment. “I don’t think he would have any confirmation problems. I couldn’t give any higher recommendations.”

Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, said he has known Fitzpatrick for all 14 years he has been a legislator and trusts his understanding of the relationship between incarceration and treatment to make sure people leave the correctional system better than when they came in.

“I don’t have to worry about him bobbing and weaving to get around a question,” Gerzofsky said. “He’s been a very strong proponent of the direction we’ve been going in with rehabilitation and treatment.”

The committee’s House chairman, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, also said he was pleased with LePage’s selection, though he acknowledged that some might question Fitzpatrick’s background, which is clinical rather than in corrections.

“He’s straightforward. He doesn’t overpromise. He delivers,” said Dion, a former Cumberland County sheriff. “He doesn’t have a corrections background, but I think that may be an asset.”

Fitzpatrick’s appointment comes at a time of turbulence in the state’s prison system.

Last month, an inmate was stabbed to death at the Maine State Prison in Warren, allegedly by another inmate, and the department is reviewing operations at the Long Creek Youth Development Center after recent assaults by inmates at the juvenile detention facility in South Portland.

Fitzpatrick is a clinical psychologist trained in pediatric and adult mental health. Before moving to Maine in 1990, he was on the staff at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and a member of the adjunct faculty of Harvard Medical School.

Fitzpatrick started in Maine as a staff psychologist at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. As the department’s clinical director for the last few years, Fitzpatrick worked in the adult and juvenile divisions.

“I appreciate the tremendous opportunity and responsibility Governor LePage has entrusted to me,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement.

“Commissioner Ponte has made significant reforms in the MDOC statewide system, and I look forward to continuing this progression through a balance of treatment and security advances. The MDOC administrators, supervisors and line staff are a very talented team of professionals and I have no doubt that together we will continue to move the department in a positive direction.”

Fitzpatrick oversaw the opening of the intensive mental health unit at the Maine State Prison. The unit serves the Department of Corrections, county jails and state Department of Health and Human Services.

.Fitzpatrick will oversee the opening of the young adult offender program at Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston.

He lives in North Yarmouth with his wife, Patti, and their four children, Shannon, Molly, Joseph and Emma.

Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@pressherald.com

Twitter: @scottddolan