AUGUSTA — A national policy group hired by the Maine Juvenile Justice Advisory Group recommends the state invest in community-based services to reduce the number of incarcerated minors as a “down payment” on longer-term juvenile justice reforms.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy credits Maine with dramatic improvements over the past decade in reducing detention rates among juveniles and diverting more youths from the judicial system.

But preliminary findings of the more than six-month study found that just under half of detained youth had not committed crimes against another person and 53 percent were incarcerated because the state lacked alternative places to house them safely.

Those incarcerations have potentially long-term implications for the mental and physical health of the juveniles and their families.

“The under-investment … has left us with fewer options than we need,” Mark Soler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy, said Tuesday. “Kids are waiting and being incarcerated for long periods of time because the right non-secure programs and services are not available. That’s a problem.”

Soler and his team presented preliminary findings from their study to roughly 30 members of the Juvenile Justice System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force that began meeting last year.

The center’s final report, due next month, and the task force’s eventual list of recommendations are expected to lay the groundwork for potentially sweeping reform proposals to Maine’s juvenile justice system. Part of those discussions will likely focus on the future of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, which is the state’s only youth prison.

Rep. Michael Brennan, a Portland Democrat who co-chairs the task force, said it will prepare “first step” legislation for consideration during the shorter 2020 legislative session.

“We’ve got to take the next big step in the next two months, and I think it is going to be possible to do that,” Brennan said.

The advisory group hired the center in June to inform the 30-member task force’s work on ways to improve the way Maine handles youth offenders. This follows several years of criticism about the lack of community-based services available to avoid juvenile detention and help keep youth from entering the judicial system.

Juvenile arrests and detentions in Maine have fallen dramatically over the past decade.

Arrests declined by 58 percent – from 6,842 to 2,852 arrests – from 2008 to 2018, including by 7 percent just from 2017 to 2018. At the same time, incarcerations at Long Creek have fallen as police and the courts use more “diversion” techniques such as individual case management and community service for non-violent offenders.

In 2014, 77 percent of youth offenders referred by police to the Department of Corrections were “diverted” to keep them out of Long Creek. And in 2018, 86 percent of the youth cases that were eligible for diversion based on the charges filed were diverted, according to statistics included in the preliminary findings.

But the center staff said Tuesday that many of those who were detained at Long Creek would be better served in a different setting.

The center’s review found that just 27 percent of youth detentions in Maine were to prevent harm to the juvenile or others while 20 percent were to ensure the individual would appear in court. The remaining 53 percent were locked up at Long Creek because either the home environment was too unsafe or there were no community-based services available that could handle the oftentimes complex mental and behavioral needs of the client.

Roughly three-quarters of the juveniles held at Long Creek for more than 30 days were because they were awaiting placement in community-based programs, according to the center’s study.

Soler said potential alternatives to traditional incarceration at Long Creek include group homes, shelters, specialized foster care and other community programs. Many states have dramatically reduced detentions by using short- or long-term alternatives for juveniles who need support – often because of family issues at home – but don’t need to be behind barbed wire.

“It’s a question of values that we don’t want to lock up kids only because of something they can’t control,” Soler told task force members. “We want kids to be held accountable for their behavior. But we don’t want to lock them up for something that they didn’t do.”

Other preliminary recommendations from the study include: testing juvenile offenders for traumatic brain injuries that can affect behavior, ensuring diversion programs are available statewide, giving officers more discretion on what offenses require detention, and not detaining youths who are likely to be released within three days.

Underscoring the high priority of the juvenile justice reform effort, representatives of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy as well as task force members are slated to present the preliminary findings to Democratic and Republican legislative leaders on Wednesday. Several committees that oversee juvenile justice issues will also receive presentations ahead of anticipated hearings on a bill next month.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, a Hallowell Democrat who co-chairs the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said the coming conversation “is not going to be comfortable.” But one commonality among many of the task forces looking at serious issues – including underfunded county jails, mental health needs and juvenile justice reform – is the need for more local programs.

“What all of the data is saying to us is that we need community-based resources,” Warren said.

Brennan, the Portland lawmaker, put a preliminary price tag of $3 million to $4 million for some of the low-hanging fruit to reduce youth detentions and create alternatives for juveniles who don’t need to be at Long Creek. Any funding proposal will have to compete with other requests for a share of the estimated $75 million revenue surplus in the current two-year budget.

“I do think there are financial resources there are available to us,” Brennan said.

Correction: This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. Thursday Jan. 30, 2020 to correct the group that hired the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.

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