We strongly agree with your Aug. 20 editorial, “Our View: Maine needs options for juvenile offenders,” highlighting a recent court case that noted the lack of community-based alternatives for youth who commit delinquent acts. Prison cannot be the only option for kids who find themselves in conflict with the law.

Last November, we participated in the Youth Justice in Maine: Imagine a New Future conference in Portland, where we shared information about the harmful effects of incarceration as well as about successful community-based alternatives. We also discussed ways to bring these approaches to Maine.

It’s a conversation happening across the country and one that Maine leaders and those in the state who aspire to lead need to keep having. The recent court case highlighted in the editorial is just one more example in a long list of indicators that Maine is failing to give some of its most vulnerable youth every opportunity to succeed. The fact is that an alarming number of the young people in Long Creek Youth Development Center are sent there not because they are a threat to public safety, but because no community-based alternatives exist in the state.

This overreliance on incarceration in the absence of community investment isn’t just unfair; it is also ineffective and harmful. Locking youth up is not an evidence-based practice; it does not improve youth outcomes or make us safer. In fact, recidivism data show that children and youth who have been incarcerated are more likely to re-offend, not less.

Additionally, most incarcerated youth and those in residential care have experienced some form of trauma, and their delinquent behavior often stems from this trauma. Out-of-home placements further isolate youth from their community, often re-traumatize them and can make their return home more difficult. However, in the right environment, these wounds can heal. Community-centered approaches work to build resilience and foster healing within the youth’s home and community, where they will ultimately need to succeed.

Youth Advocate Programs is one program with experience providing alternatives to prison and other out-of-home confinement that keep communities safe and improve outcomes for young people. For more than four decades, Youth Advocate Programs has delivered individualized community-based services – intensive mentoring delivered by neighborhood advocates, behavioral health care, family advocacy and other supports – all while keeping those served safely home and out of institutional placement. Partnering with young people and their families in a trauma-informed manner while working with government agencies to change systems and grow community capacity are the core of Youth Advocate Programs’ approach.

We shared at the November conference that Youth Advocate Programs follows several key principles, including a commitment to cultivate long-term connectedness to the community, an emphasis on youth and family voice in the process and adherence to a “no reject, no eject” policy to ensure that no young person is turned away.

This approach is unique, and it works. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center looked at 1,851 justice-involved young people six to 12 months after they finished receiving Youth Advocate Programs’ services and found that 95 percent were still living safely at home in their communities. Texas has developed a particularly innovative Medicaid waiver to serve youth with serious emotional disturbances in the community as an alternative to psychiatric hospitalization, lowering the state’s expenditures on inpatient services. Texas is one of the states that use Youth Advocate Programs’ services, knowing all referrals will be accepted.

Maine leaders can also look to “Beyond Bars,” a report published by the National Collaboration of Youth, which represents the nation’s largest youth-serving organizations, as a blueprint for how to develop a continuum of care and reduce the state’s reliance on institutions.

Maine has the opportunity to re-examine its juvenile justice system and to draw on state and national experience to develop a continuum of care that meets the needs of all its children. We agree with Maine’s high court that institutionalizing children is not the answer; that Maine can do better. We urge state leaders to work together to invest in alternatives that benefit all children, families and communities.