AUGUSTA — With no family at home, Brodie Dunton was an alcoholic by the time he was 14 years old and spent his teenage years in and out of minor trouble with the law.

He also found himself in and out of various youth treatment programs and then committed to Long Creek Youth Development Center on a misdemeanor theft charge.

“I ended up doing 26 months at Long Creek,” Dunton told a crowd Thursday at a Maine Juvenile Justice Task Force forum in Augusta. “They had me sitting there, doing nothing. I sat there until discharge.”

He was among a group of young adults at the forum who also spoke about their time incarcerated as children at Long Creek. The event also included representatives of the Maine Department of Corrections, police officers, legislators and other state and local government officials.

Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner of juvenile services at the Department of Corrections, who has also overseen operations at Long Creek, responded to Dunton that to be fair, it should be noted he would have gone home almost immediately, but he had no home. Nor, apparently, was there any other place for Dunton to go.

After the forum ended and the roughly 60 attendees were making their way out of Augusta City Center, Dunton summed up what attendees seemed to agree was a key problem with the juvenile justice system: “Why didn’t he have a place for me to go? That’s the thing.”

The forum was the third one in the state, with another set for next month in Portland, according to Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based juvenile justice policy group hired by state corrections officials to evaluate Maine’s juvenile justice system.

The goal: Delivering recommendations that could lead to reform and assist a 32-member task force of legislators, state officials, members of law enforcement and advocates charged with recommending reforms in how Maine treats youthful offenders.

The look at problems of the Maine juvenile justice system and ways to improve it includes considering closing or repurposing Long Creek Youth Development Center, the state’s only youth prison.

Advocates said imprisoning youth does not work and is often harmful to the juveniles it claims to help, while the money, about $15 million a year, spent at Long Creek would be better spent on community-based programs for youths.

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey speaks Feb. 28 at a forum about the opioid crisis in Waterville. Morning Sentinel file photo by Amy Calder

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey warned that Maine needs somewhere to place youths who commit violent crimes to ensure the public’s safety.

“We know locking up juveniles is not the best for them, but is sometimes necessary,” Massey said. “I have some concerns if we’re going to close Long Creek. For those juveniles who are violent, we need a facility that has the security levels to prevent them from walking away and exposing the community to violence.”

Soler said he does not necessarily see Maine doing away with a secure holding facility for youth. He said that if more could be diverted to community-based programs — and the many youth at Long Creek who need mental health treatment, which the facility is not equipped to provide, are placed in treatment programs — Maine would have no need for a facility as large as Long Creek. In the past, the facility has had more than 300 youths in residence.

“If you could take the number (at Long Creek) down to who really needs to be confined, you’d have maybe 20, and it could be a much smaller facility,” Soler said. “Nobody is talking about opening the doors and letting the kids walk out.”

O’Neill said Long Creek now has about 55 youths, 35 of whom were sent there by judges after they committed crimes and 20 who are incarcerated temporarily because they stand accused of criminal behavior and await court proceedings.

He said Long Creek’s field staff, the equivalent of probation officers for youths, process about 2,000 referrals a year, and now oversee between 300 and 350 youths on probation.

O’Neill and Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said Maine officials have worked to divert an increasing number of youth from entering the correctional system.

O’Neill said about a third of the youth who end up at Long Creek are high-risk offenders accused or convicted of serious crimes, a third are lower-risk offenders involved in lesser crimes and a third are there due to behavioral or mental health issues.

Mike Prue, 28, of Biddeford, said there were more than 200 youths at Long Creek when he was there as a juvenile. In his experience, he said, youths sent there to be rehabilitated so they could become successful adults often experienced the opposite result.

“The way it stands is people (sent to Long Creek) find themselves worse off coming out than when they went in,” Prue said. “You treat them like they’re in adult prisons when they walk in, in shackles.

“As a kid that tried to ask for help, if I made the smallest mistake, they’d slap me back in there. And when you get out, where do you go? So they go back to the same lifestyle. You’re pretty much setting them up to fail.”

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, a co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said forming the task force and working to reform the juvenile justice system shows state officials are committed to improvements.

“We know the data shows locking kids up is not good for anyone,” she said.

Soler and State Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, a co-chairman of the task force with Liberty and Jill Ward from the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law, said they hope to propose reforms that will be considered by the next state Legislature.

A survey, asking people about their experiences in the juvenile justice system, will be part of what they consider in making recommendations, and is available at www.mainejjtaskforce.org.

Al Cleveland, 22, of Portland, is campaign coordinator for Maine Youth Justice, a nonpartisan group which advocates for ending youth incarceration in Maine. He said the group issued a report with eight recommendations for reforms to Maine’s juvenile justice system, including:

• Investing in communities and reimagining the role of police.

• Investing in credible messengers.

• Shutting down what they call the school-to-prison pipeline.

• Funding programs that divert youth from arrest, prosecution and incarceration.

• Creating a new model for small, community-based residential programs.

• Taking the responsibility for youth justice and community reinvestment out of the Maine Department of Corrections.

• Repurposing Long Creek.

Adan Abdikadir, 20, of Lewiston, who attended the forum with others from Maine Youth Justice, said many of the problems the forum sought to address result from youths not having positive role models in their lives.

“We need to worry about what’s happening in these kids’ homes, not having enough people to look up to,” he said, likening youths to flowers that need help to grow.

“We’re always questioning, ‘What’s wrong with this kid?’ Maybe it’s how they’re being flowered. Maybe the water is dirty, the community is dirty. It’s not just the flower itself. For it to pop, you need to put some water in.”

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