Maine’s failure to do a better job with juvenile offenders is proving costly for the state in terms of lost economic activity and spiraling jail and prison costs, according to a task force composed of experts across the spectrum of youth intervention.

The Juvenile Justice Task Force issued a report this month that calls on the state to make major changes in how it treats teenagers who are at risk or already in trouble, proposing a list of goals aimed at keeping kids in school and out of correctional facilities.

“This report provides a road map demonstrating how Maine can lead the way in creating one of the best juvenile justice systems in the country,” said Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, one of the three task force co-chairs.

The report calls for changes in three areas: education, incarceration and community-based systems.

Its goals include:

Requiring all schools in the state to graduate at least 90 percent of students by 2016 and 95 percent by 2020.

Reducing incarceration rates for juveniles by 50 percent in the next five years.

Developing alternative education and intervention models that support the education and incarceration goals.

The task force was composed of and supported by influential state leaders, including Saufley, first lady Karen Baldacci, who heads Maine’s Children’s Cabinet, and Peter Pitegoff, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, as well as scores of service providers who work with at-risk kids.

Barry Stoodley, the Department of Corrections’ associate commissioner, believes the changes can have real and long-term benefits.

“We have opportunities in the juvenile system,” said Stoodley, a task force member. “It’s not because we’re coddling kids. It’s because we’re trying to make a difference reduce recidivism.”

“If we don’t do this job well, then the inevitable outcome is these kids will continue a criminal offending career for a long time, and that means graduation into the adult system,” he said.

A career criminal costs society between $1.2 million and $2.4 million in repeated victimization and criminal justice costs, he said, citing a previous study.

The report suggests several facets of state government must be involved in helping kids avoid trouble, and education holds a key responsibility.

The report cites a study that found that a person dropping out of high school costs society almost $300,000 in lost tax revenue and increased jail costs compared to a high school graduate.

That doesn’t include the community impact of increased crime. More than half the adults in Maine prisons lack a high school education.

Education also is one of the foundations that adolescents need to maintain to avoid drifting into delinquency.

The task force supports a goal of having school districts graduate at least 90 percent of students by 2016 and 95 percent by 2020. A bill sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, passed this session establishing the 90 percent mark as the statewide goal by 2016.

The task force also says the state needs to revisit “zero tolerance” policies, which trigger swift suspensions and expulsions from school.

Originally designed specifically to address guns, current laws say that, if necessary for the peace and functioning of the school, schools shall expel students who possess any illegal drugs, who are violent or who are “deliberately disobedient or deliberately disorderly.”

Removing students from school for poor attendance, truancy or disciplinary infractions increases the likelihood a student will drop out, triggering a cascade of long-term negative consequences, the report says.

“Except in circumstances where there’s a high risk of violence, the worst thing you can do for that kid is put them in forced idle time,” Saufley said.

Reducing the number of young people incarcerated serves kids better as well as saving money, say advocates.

When an adolescent is sent to one of the two juvenile detention facilities in the state — in South Portland or in Charleston — it can make a marginal kid worse.

“It’s not helpful for a low-risk kid to be with a high-risk kid, and that’s what happens,” said Ned Chester, an attorney who represents adolescents.

Besides being expensive, incarceration also distances young people from their support networks, whether at home, in school or in the community, just when they need stability.

“Long Creek (Youth Development Center) is not a solution,” said Chester, referring to the state’s South Portland facility. “It doesn’t build permanence. It destroys permanence.”

Some young offenders do need the security and structure of a juvenile facility, but punishment on its own does a poor job of modifying behavior, task force members said.

The criminal justice system recognizes that young people haven’t fully developed their decision-making skills, which is why they are treated differently from adults, said Carlann Welch, a psychologist who evaluates adolescents and one of 70 people who served on the task force.

The report cites brain scan studies that show that the portion of the brain that controls impulses and exercises judgment often doesn’t fully develop until a person is 25. Young people are more likely to be making decisions in the emotional parts of their brains, the report said.

The resulting risky behavior does not necessarily mean a youth is headed toward a life of crime, and with the right guidance and supervision, he or she can become a responsible adult.

There are techniques that have been shown to work, combinations of counseling and education.

Developing support systems for an adolescent in the juvenile justice system while keeping him or her in a home and part of the community will do better by the child and better for society, said Jim Beougher, director of the Office of Child and Family Services for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The department is expanding its “wraparound” services to more youths in the juvenile justice system, he said, focusing initially on girls, who have been the fastest-growing segment of the detained population.

According to the report, that guidance would be more effective if it were not as fractured as it is now, between schooling, overseen by the Department of Education; counseling, provided for by DHHS; and the restrictions imposed by the Department of Corrections.

“We’re trying to knock down the silos,” said Christopher Northrop, director of the juvenile justice clinic at the University of Maine School of Law.

The new model would have resources assigned on a per-juvenile basis, funding the specific services and intervention that an adolescent needs while trying to keep him or her out of expensive and often counterproductive incarceration.

Functions now within the Department of Labor, such as job skills training, would be included.

Also provided would be family counseling to address issues in an adolescent’s home life, making it less likely that he or she will get into trouble again and become a costly and possibly long-term burden for corrections officials — and, by extension, taxpayers.

The task force report is already being implemented. The Legislature has approved a bill offered by Rep. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, to implement many of the recommendations.

“I think that actually has a realistic opportunity for improving the state of Maine without substantial new dollars,” Saufley said.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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