When it comes to dealing with kids who have violated the law, Maine does better than most. At any given time, there are only somewhere around 100 juveniles incarcerated at the state’s one detention facility for minors, Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, and Long Creek has been held up as a national model for youth prisons.

But that bar is low – the state of juvenile incarceration in this country remains troubling despite advancements over the last decade, and it has become clear that almost no minor should be kept behind lock and key, where they are pushed further to the margins of society.

Instead, troubled youth should be treated in community-based settings that stress accountability and a sense of belonging. Maine, with its relatively small number of youth prisoners and strong sense of community, can and should be a leader in this effort.

RIGHT DIRECTION

Nationally, the number of incarcerated youth peaked in the mid-1990s, then fell steadily, hitting a 35-year low of around 71,000 in 2010. Since then, the number has continued to fall, and there are now approximately 51,000 kids in some form of out-of-home placement.

In Maine, the number of incarcerated youth declined 35 percent between 1997 and 2013, from 318 to 186. In 2015, Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston was closed and its nine remaining inmates sent south, joining just 84 at Long Creek.

That was the end result of years of work to keep juveniles out of the justice system. Both the number of youth arrested and the number of youth who appeared before a judge fell precipitously as troubled juveniles were given the opportunity to work in the communities they harmed and attend alternative education programs rather than serve time.

It is hard, individualized work, but it pays off – juveniles who complete these programs rarely re-offend.

That trend is found throughout the country. A John Jay Research and Evaluation brief covering 3,500 juveniles in trouble found that 86 percent remained arrest-free while in community-based programs.

Another study found that six to 12 months after the completion of a community program, 87 percent of juveniles were still in the same community and 95 percent remained out of a secure facility.

In other words, the vast majority had become trouble-free members of the community that nurtured, rather than imprisoned, them.

BETTER APPROACH

On the other hand, incarcerated youth are often re-arrested, and incarceration itself may be to blame.

Incarceration marginalizes children who already feel disconnected from society. It tells them they are separate from the rest of us, and does little to give them the tools they need to navigate the outside world. It makes them feel unsafe and unworthy.

That’s why a national coalition of youth advocacy groups is calling for all youth prisons to be closed, and to be replaced with more effective – and less costly – community-based programs that provide treatment and support to juveniles and their families.

That would include mentorship programs and expanded alternative education, as well as employment and vocational training. It would also include wraparound services that attempt to understand the child’s behavior and its causes, such as trauma or substance abuse, and to help parents develop the skills they need, too.

And it should stress restorative justice, which allows offenders to actively repair the harm they’ve done, connecting them with victims and showing them that they can be part of a community even after they have messed up, as long as they are accountable for their actions.

That is the proven way to make sure that more kids who are in trouble with the law don’t make it a lifelong habit.

There are some difficult questions with this approach, such as what to do when a child is a danger to himself or others, or when a child’s home is itself dangerous.

But those questions concern only a small portion of the youth-prison population, and they can be answered with the right effort; they should not derail the effort to take what are clearly the best steps for Maine youth, out of prison and into their community.

That is the direction the state and the country have been moving for years; we simply need the courage to take the final steps.