On any day, about 100 young men and women between the ages of 14 and 21 reside in Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, one of Maine’s two juvenile detention facilities. And there is growing evidence that that’s not the best place for some of them to be.
Long Creek has received unwelcome attention this year after a sharp rise during January and February in assaults by inmates on the facility’s adult employees, compared to the same period in 2013. While the spike in violence has prompted calls for increasing the number of guards at the detention center, that won’t be enough.
Young people in detention are nearly three times as likely as their peers to have mental health issues, and many would be better served by treatment in the community, not by placement in a corrections facility. If Maine officials want to prevent a repeat of the troubles at Long Creek, they should take substantive action to help youth with mental health needs before they wind up in the justice system.
The attacks take place after a decade during which Maine’s juvenile crime rate has fallen. From 2001 to 2010, state researchers say, arrests in connection with both index crimes (violent and property offenses) and less serious crimes have seen dramatic declines. So it doesn’t seem as if the young inmates currently at Long Creek are more predisposed to act out than their predecessors were.
Nonetheless, they have acted out, leading to nearly two dozen clashes in the first two months of this year. Two were particularly shocking. On Jan. 30, three inmates allegedly did thousands of dollars of property damage and choked a corrections officer; two weeks later, three different teenagers allegedly overpowered and punched and kicked a lone guard.
What’s at the root of these problems? Inmates with mental health and trauma issues are more likely to act aggressively if they feel unsafe, a Cumberland County prosecutor says.
Both mental illness and trauma are common among young people in detention. Up to 60 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have a mental health disorder – compared to about 22 percent of others their age. (About two-thirds of mentally ill inmates also have a substance abuse disorder.) And more than 90 percent of the young people in juvenile detention report what a recent white paper calls prior “exposure to ‘adverse’ events including accidents, serious illnesses, physical and sexual abuse, (and) domestic and community violence.”
Moreover, not all of these youths – especially the nonviolent offenders – need to be in a correctional facility. They need other resources. But funding for juvenile substance abuse treatment has been cut, there’s a shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists in much of the state and Maine has no juvenile psychiatric facility – so the mentally ill wind up in Long Creek, adding to the population and increasing the need for staffing.
Four years ago, a state task force proposed a list of goals aimed at keeping young Mainers in school and out of correctional facilities. It’s time to revisit those goals – especially a call for family counseling to address issues in an adolescent’s home life before he or she gets into trouble – and explore options for expanding access to child psychiatric care. (A program that trains pediatricians to diagnose and recommend treatment for mental illness covers only southern, western and midcoast Maine.) For the sake of state employees’ safety and the well-being of Maine’s young people, we can’t allow this problem to go on.