SOUTH PORTLAND — The Jan. 4 editorial (“Our View: Time to stop incarcerating Maine children”) shows a common problem surrounding the juvenile-justice system in our state: a lack of public understanding of the fundamental problems facing Maine youth. As a volunteer at Long Creek Youth Development Center who is close in age to those incarcerated (22 years old), I have a unique perspective on the problems facing youth, and a broader view on what proper reform looks like.

While it is widely understood that Maine’s youth correctional system needs some type of reform, abruptly closing the one facility that provides juvenile offenders some semblance of stability is not the answer. As was correctly said in the editorial, the staff at Long Creek are good people who intend the best for the children they work with. And like it or not, being in the facility is often the best chance many of the youth have at receiving the services they need. Dedicated clinicians, social workers, teachers, guidance counselors, mental and behavioral health professionals, volunteers and others put in countless hours working to help Long Creek residents.

A job placement program run by Goodwill workers that places facility residents in good, solid jobs at thriving local businesses; a puppy program that places rescue puppies in the willing and capable hands of resident teenagers to raise them prior to their adoption; and an accredited high school that provides multiple post-secondary preparatory classes to prepare students for their application to college are just some of the good things happening at the facility. This good work often culminates in post-secondary opportunities for many residents, including attendance at Maine community colleges and trade schools. The facility is not the problem.

The problem is the severe lack of community services available to Maine youth – especially those in the juvenile-justice process. When Long Creek residents complete their program or reach their discharge date, they often struggle to have their most basic needs met. After they leave the daily counseling visits, the needed medication and the steady and consistent meals often stop and sometimes do not return until the person who left is either back in Long Creek or in an adult correctional facility.

What Maine youth in the juvenile justice system need is not the abrupt closing of Long Creek and re-entry into the community, but a solid and focused policy initiative looking to develop a continuum of care from incarceration to community re-entry.

In a 2017 report, researchers at the Cutler Institute at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service found that 42 percent of the incarcerated youth discharged between 2010 and 2014 were returned to incarceration within two years from their program completion or their release date. Of that 42 percent, 95 percent returned to a correctional facility within the first year. After the one-year mark, recidivism rates drastically dropped, and the remaining 5 percent who returned were spread out over the next year.

This shows that if policymakers focus on continued reform within Long Creek and on building community supports to expand upon progress made within the facility upon release, there is a real chance to help Maine youth. Making Long Creek the symbol for the system’s larger failures only creates more public dissatisfaction with the facility and handicaps policymakers in their attempts to effect progress.

So here’s an idea: Work with the good staff at Long Creek, focus on finding solutions to the well-documented problems within the facility and make Long Creek part of the solution. Find ways to make it feel less like a prison and look at ways to construct the facility in a way that shields it from its harsher past. If Gov. Mills wants to truly help Maine youth, her team should focus on expanding access to mental health services for youth, and on establishing critical steps in the re-entry process that give Maine youth the care they need.

The abrupt shutdown of a facility that often is the only source of vital, needed services is not the answer here. Let’s change the narrative.

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