State corrections officials have hired a Washington, D.C.-based juvenile justice policy group to spend the next seven months evaluating Maine’s juvenile justice system with a goal of delivering recommendations early next year that could lead to sweeping reform.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy was hired in June by the Department of Corrections to assist a 30-member task force of legislators, state officials, law enforcement and advocates charged with rethinking how Maine treats youthful offenders, including contemplating closing Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s only child prison.

The $227,000 contract will bring to Maine a team of mental health experts, data scientists, psychologists and juvenile justice policy researchers to perform interviews, conduct focus groups, gather data and hold public forums. The group plans to deliver a comprehensive report in February 2020. Federal funding provided through the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council, an organization within the Department of Corrections, will pay for the study.

The consulting contract will support the juvenile justice task force formed by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, and comes after nearly three years of steady criticism about Maine’s lack of community-based programs that could provide alternatives to incarceration for youthful offenders. Today, children as young as 11 are held in the locked facility in South Portland and attend a separate school program behind barbed wire and fences away from their homes, schools and communities.

Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, declined to comment about the assessment, and referred questions to the three co-chairs of the task force.

The chairs of the committee said they believe the state is ready to make strides to improve outcomes for some of the state’s most vulnerable children.

“(The goal is) really trying to structure systems and respond to kids’ needs as close to home as possible,” said Jill Ward, a co-chair of the task force and the program manager at the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law, which is housed within the University of Maine School of Law in Portland. “That’s where things are moving nationally, but to also put that money and resources in the communities where those kids are.”

The task force represents a rare moment of alignment among lawmakers, the Mills administration, the judiciary and child advocates, who collaborated in February to create the task force and will have to continue to work closely to achieve any meaningful reforms, said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, another task force co-chair.

Implementing the recommendations will fall to lawmakers, who will have to grapple with program costs, funding options and long-term planning, Brennan said. There are many moving parts, and the process is just getting started.

“The work of the task force is going to be heavily influenced and shaped by what the Legislature and the administration decide to do,” Brennan said. “You’re going to need the Department of Corrections and the commissioner and the administration to be supportive. You’re going to need the Legislature to understand the plan going forward. And then obviously to develop a functioning community-based system, we’ll have to have the community partners, as well.”

In the coming weeks, the task force plans to launch a website to host reports, meeting minutes, transcripts and announcements about how the public can participate in the process, Ward said.

National policy leaders believe the current model of juvenile justice is outdated and harmful to children, and have been sounding the alarm about Maine’s system for at least three years. State corrections officials had touted their steady effort to divert the vast majority of youthful offenders away from incarceration – a successful initiative that led to reduction of the in-custody youthful offender population from a peak of 300 in the 1990s to only about 50 children, half of whom are committed long-term by a judge.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty believes this is a turning point and an opportunity to make considerable new investments in Maine’s youth justice system, while also focusing  taxpayer dollars on better outcomes for kids.

“If we don’t invest the money and the resources in these youth today, there’s no savings in that,” Liberty said. “These youth are at high risk of being involved in the criminal justice system all their lives. It costs $44,000 to house (an adult) in state custody. We’d rather invest the money at the front end, and save these youth’s lives.”

In its current form, Long Creek is many times more expensive per child than adult prisons. In the fiscal year that ended on June 30, Maine spent $15.8 million to house, feed, teach and treat a steady population of about 50 children – or about $315,000 per child per year. About half of the population is committed to Long Creek by a judge on a long-term basis, while the other half is temporarily detained, awaiting court dates or a final adjudication of their criminal cases.

The calls for Long Creek’s closure and for juvenile criminal justice reform intensified after the 2016 suicide of a 16-year-old transgender teenager being held there temporarily awaiting adjudication on an arson charge.

Charles Maisie Knowles died on Nov. 1, 2016, from injuries he sustained when he hanged himself three days earlier. Knowles’s death came after repeated requests by his mother for Knowles to receive more intensive psychiatric treatment for longstanding and well-documented mental health problems, his mother said previously.

A year later, in a study conducted by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, researchers found most of the children held at Long Creek have deep and profound mental health problems that its programs and line staff are neither equipped nor trained to address.

“Staff and administrators at Long Creek were the first to admit that the facility is not the right place for many of the youth in its care,” the 2017 report found. “Long Creek was designed as a secure facility for the small number of justice-involved youth in Maine who require that level of restriction because of their likelihood of committing violent offenses. However … a relatively small percentage of youth at Long Creek have been adjudicated for a violent offense, let alone a felony.”

The new research proposed in the coming months by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy will examine the multiple factors that lead to children being incarcerated at Long Creek, and provide a comprehensive look at how the current system functions. A work plan filed as part of the center’s bid describes a battery of research questions focused on documenting the demographic backgrounds, medical and mental health histories, prosecutorial charging decisions and other factors that led each child to Long Creek, and what their rehabilitative needs are going forward.

While adult criminal laws use incarceration as a punishment for misconduct and a deterrent to others, the juvenile justice system’s goals are rehabilitation and reintegration of youth into society so they can lead productive lives as adults. The juvenile code also sets out to remove children from their parents’ custody only when it is in the interest of the child’s welfare, or to protect the public or provide punishment.

The researchers also will examine current costs to Maine and where improvements to serving kids could result in better value for taxpayers, along with identifying potential funding streams to support any new programs.

“With the data we will collect, we will be able to forecast the likely costs and savings for the state through a variety of scenarios that represent differing prioritization and balancing of the goals and values of the system,” the group wrote in its proposal.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy has performed similar work in other states, where officials have contracted it to evaluate juvenile justice systems and make recommendations that are then passed to legislators, who have the power to change laws and fund more effective programs.

“We’d want to be in a position in the latter part of January to present to the Legislature what the strategy would be and what the cost will be and what the steps are that we need to take,” Brennan said. The recommendations could also become part of a supplemental budget or emergency legislation that could be taken up in the short, second legislative session that begins in January.

The resulting report is likely to provide a menu of policy options, with the goal of creating a continuum of care that is flexible enough to meet the diverse needs of children while keeping them closer to their home communities and out of lock-up, said Ward, the task force co-chair.

In the past, state corrections officials touted their work to steadily reduce the number of incarcerated children statewide, which peaked in the 1990s with about 300 kids. The state closed a second youth facility at Mountain View and converted it into an adult facility as a result of the diversions, but the administration of Gov. Paul LePage made no major public effort to change the course of juvenile justice in the state.

Liberty, the corrections commissioner, earlier this year floated the idea of converting all or part of Long Creek into an adult women’s prison, which would allow for more focused programming than what is currently available at the Windham Correctional Center’s female unit, but those plans are “pre-decisional,” Liberty said.

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