Chief Justice Leigh Saufley used her annual address to the Legislature last week to make some unusual requests. Instead of asking for more money to run the state’s courthouses, she called on lawmakers to create safe housing, mental health and recovery services for all Mainers, but especially for young people.

Saufley said Maine was in the midst of an “epidemic of addiction and mental health crises” that calls for community-based alternatives to jail. The issue is most acute for juveniles, who are sent to the Long Creek Youth Development Center, a prison-like facility that is no place to recover from anxiety, depression or a substance use disorder.

Saufley’s comments point to a major flaw in the social service safety net. Substance use disorder in teenagers and adults can look like criminal behavior, but it can result from adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect and untreated mental illness.

Frequently, young people who show up in court need treatment, not jail, but there are no residential programs to send them to beside Long Creek. If they come from homes that are not sufficiently stable to support their recovery, judges have no other choice beside incarceration.

“There has been an acknowledgment for quite some time that we do not have sufficient placement facilities for youth who can’t go home,” Saufley told reporters after her Feb. 26 speech. “We haven’t found the solution yet.”

Two days later, lawmakers started working on just that. New Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, working with state Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, is assembling a Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. The group will look at the future of Long Creek, including using it as a prison for adult women, and moving the approximately 50 young people into other placements.

Before that can happen, new programs will be developed, but that should not be too serious an impediment. The state is currently spending $16.2 million a year to run the facility, about $300,000 per child.

Saufley’s comments combined with the creation of the advisory group constitute an important step toward a much-needed reform. Lawmakers should work with the Mills administration to keep the progress going.

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