The state is planning to open a transitional home for young offenders in Portland, nearly one year after Westbrook blocked the same project from opening in a residential neighborhood.

The South Portland-based nonprofit Opportunity Alliance has contracted with the Maine Department of Corrections to run the program at a house in Portland’s Riverton neighborhood. Called Project Rise, it would house up to six men 18 to 21 years old who are leaving Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. The goal is to reduce the chances that residents would re-offend.

Amid calls to close the state’s only juvenile corrections facility, Project Rise would be the first transitional home of its kind in Maine. Young people leaving Long Creek often do not have a safe environment to return to, officials have said.

“Absent a program like this, youth who have served their time will be released, and for many of these individuals, they can’t go home,” said Michael Tarpinian, president and CEO of Opportunity Alliance. “So they could be left on the streets or they could be left to an unsupervised transition. We believe that their success rate is much, much greater with this type of transition.”

Project Rise could open as soon as March 1. The Zoning Board of Appeals approved the project in September and Portland issued a building permit for renovations in December. The nonprofit only needs two fire permits and a final inspection to earn a certificate of occupancy.

Opportunity Alliance originally planned to open the home in Westbrook and purchased a single-family home there in 2016. But neighbors objected to sharing their neighborhood with young men coming out of the corrections system, and the city rewrote its zoning ordinances related to transitional homes. When the building then failed an inspection for an occupancy permit in April, Project Rise was barred from opening there.

Tarpinian said the nonprofit decided to sell that house and lease another at 1519 Forest Ave. in Portland. Tarpinian said he also has heard concerns from neighbors in Portland, but he has been working to reassure them. Opportunity Alliance has experience working with youth offenders, he said, and this program will be under 24-hour supervision.

“I don’t want to diminish those concerns, but what we’ve told them is that we will be there,” Tarpinian said. “We will provide supervision. We will be a communicator with them. I think time will ease their fears.”

Long Creek itself is in a time of transition.

A transgender boy committed suicide at the detention center in 2016 – the first suicide there in decades. The following March, three residents ran away during an outing and crashed a stolen car. The superintendent resigned. An independent audit conducted last fall concluded Long Creek lacked leadership, was understaffed and not equipped to handle the mental health needs of many of its residents.

Caroline Raymond, the new superintendent, has vowed to make improvements. But some groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, believe Long Creek should be replaced by an entirely community-based model for juvenile justice. Last month, experts from the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine School of Law published a 26-page paper that made a similar recommendation. Other states, like Missouri, have phased out their youth detention centers.

While Project Rise would be the only transitional home funded by the state, a nonprofit called the Transformation Project is working to start a similar venture in downtown Westbrook.

The detention center in South Portland was built to house 160 residents. But as research shows negative consequences from incarcerating kids, the youth prison population in Maine has dropped dramatically. As of Thursday, there were 49 full-time residents – 42 boys and 7 girls.

Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner at the Department of Corrections, said more than half are between 18 and 21 years old. They no longer have legal guardians outside of Long Creek who can help them oversee their reintegration into the community.

“A lot of these residents, once they successfully complete their program at Long Creek, they no longer need to be in secure confinement,” O’Neill said. “A lot of these residents also don’t have a safe and adequate place to go.”

There is no reliable measure of a national recidivism rate for young offenders because each state operates its juvenile system differently.

In Maine, a study published in 2016 found more than a third of committed youths re-offended within a year of their release. Within two years, more than half re-offended.

O’Neill said the young men who are eligible for Project Rise would likely already be allowed to leave Long Creek during the day for work. Juvenile offenders convicted of more violent crimes or in need of significant mental health services would not be accepted.

Once at Project Rise, residents would be required to pursue further education or work, learn life skills and seek future housing. They would live at the house on Forest Avenue for about six months. “It will help to continue to provide them with the necessary skills to not only stay out of the criminal justice system, but also to thrive,” O’Neill said.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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