It’s good news when there aren’t enough inmates to keep a prison going. It’s even better when those inmates are children.

That’s what happened last week with the announcement that Mountain View Youth Development Center, the state-run juvenile detention center for the northern half of the state, was shutting its doors to young offenders, transforming into an adult correctional facility and shipping its few remaining juvenile inmates to its southern counterpart, Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

That Mountain View is no longer needed to house young inmates is testimony to the hard work done in recent years by the Department of Corrections, the Legislature and the various other agencies and organizations that deal with troubled youth.

By acknowledging that the state’s youngest offenders are better served by staying in the community than under lock and key, and by working case by case and kid by kid to make that happen, they’ve given children facing so many obstacles a much better shot at a bright future.

PRISON COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

Mountain View, in the Penobscot County town of Charleston, opened next to a medium-security adult prison in 2001. Built with a capacity of 140 inmates, it frequently housed more than 100. But the number of residents was down to nine before they were relocated.

Long Creek has also seen a decline, from an average of 108 inmates in 2010-11 to 84 today.

That’s because there has been a concerted effort to keep juvenile offenders out of prison, certainly, but also out of the justice system altogether whenever possible.

As a result of this change in strategy, both the number of juveniles arrested in Maine and the number who appeared before a judge have declined precipitously in the last few years.

That’s good news, as bringing troubled youths together under the umbrella of the juvenile justice system rarely works out well.

Even in a system with all the best intentions of turning around young offenders, the youths tend to influence each other far more than the system influences them, and those forces get stronger the longer the youths are segregated from normal society.

A 20-year study out of Montreal, for instance, found that kids who entered the juvenile justice system only briefly were twice as likely to be arrested as adults than kids with similar behavioral issues who did not enter the system.

However, they are seven times more likely to be arrested as adults if they are put on probation as youths, and 37 times more likely if they are placed in juvenile detention.

CHANGE IN STRATEGY

So instead of being sent to prison, Maine kids are being offered the chance to work in their communities, to pay something back for the damage they’ve caused.

They also are given the opportunity to attend alternative education programs, where they can work toward a diploma or degree and gain job skills.

They are held accountable, but as long as they are willing to stay in line, they are supported.

These activities teach them what it means to be responsible, and to be part of a community. They build self-worth, and show the kids how to make their way in life.

Most of the offenders come from troubled backgrounds. For them, it can be eye-opening.

It is hard, time-consuming work, done on the individual level. These are kids that define “at-risk,” and there are plenty of opportunities for them to fail, and for the system to fail them.

But it works – few of the kids who make it through these programs appear again in the justice system.

There is, of course, more to be done. Additional resources need to be poured into helping kids with issues such as homelessness, mental health and substance abuse. Contact with these kids should be better maintained as they enter adulthood, so the progress made as teens is not lost when they turn into young adults.

And the Department of Corrections must follow through on its promise to make it less costly for families to visit the few northern and central Maine kids who will now be housed in South Portland.

But it is clear Maine is giving many of its young offenders an opportunity to right their path before their mistakes become so costly, to them and the state.