How many children belong in prison?

That’s a good question for Maine legislators, who will hold a public hearing Monday on L.D. 1684, a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice policies.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, lists a number of proposals that would reduce that number considerably, including:

• Setting 12 as the minimum age at which a child can be prosecuted for any crime and 14 as the minimum age at which a child can be incarcerated.

• Prohibiting judges from incarcerating any juvenile offender unless the state can prove, among other things, that the young person would not be harmed by the commitment.

• Every commitment would have to be justified in regular judicial reviews.

If it’s not obvious, the bill’s summary spells out its intent: “The overarching goal of this bill is to ensure that fewer children are in the juvenile justice system and that if and when they do become involved in the system there is a presumption against incarceration … in order to minimize the harm that incarceration can cause children.”

The bill would put into practice what experts in juvenile justice have been telling us for a long time. We overuse commitments to Long Creek Youth Development Center because there are not enough good options for judges.  And because a Long Creek commitment costs the state $250,000 a year per child, there aren’t enough resources to provide those options.

The creation of a task force was announced last week to study the way that juvenile justice is administered in Maine. But while the panel is doing its work, lawmakers should be asking some of their own questions about incarcerating children. We think that those answers should lead them to support the reforms proposed in Morales’ bill.

For starters, is there any age when a child is too young to be incarcerated? Right now, Maine law doesn’t say. As neurobiologists report that brain development is typically incomplete until people reach their 20s, a 10-year-old could be held responsible for committing a crime in this state. The bill’s authors are more than measured to say that a child should at least reach the age of 12 before that can happen.

Lawmakers should also ask what kind of crimes these young people would have to commit to deserve to be taken out of their homes and communities. A lot of people would agree that serious, violent felonies like murder, rape or assault with a weapon call for a serious sentence, but they might be surprised to find out who really ends up in Long Creek.

A state survey in 2017 found that only 17 percent of Long Creek inmates had been charged with what would be a felony of any kind, including drug felonies if committed by an adult. The majority are kids who came into the system for minor offenses and made things worse by a lack of cooperation with authorities. A case before the state supreme court last year involved a boy who had committed some minor property crimes and failed to show up for court-ordered therapy. The judge said he had no choice except to send the boy to the most restrictive and expensive placement in Maine because nothing else was available.

And lawmakers should ask: What do we as a society hope to get of locking a juvenile offender away for what could be years?

With a few extreme exceptions, incarceration won’t make us safer. The evidence suggests it won’t make the incarcerated youths into better citizens, either.

The state study echoed national estimates that 70 percent of justice system-involved youth have mental disorders like depression or anxiety. Many have substance use disorders, and if national research holds up here, almost all of them can be expected to be survivors of trauma, either as a victim or witness, which puts them on high alert.

None of those conditions can be expected to get better in a prison environment. Most of the rehabilitative work these kids do will have to wait until after they are released.

It’s a complicated problem that will take more than one bill to fix. Maine needs more community-based treatment programs. And it needs to stop pouring money into Long Creek so it can reinvest in those programs.

But the Maine Legislature also needs to be clear that prisons are not mental hospitals, drug treatment centers or homes for kids who have nowhere else to go.

How many children belong in prison? The answer should be “none,” and the policy goal for the state should be moving in that direction.