AUGUSTA — Lawmakers have proposed gradually reducing the population of Long Creek Youth Development Center and preventing courts from locking up young people at the South Portland facility simply because they can’t be sent home.

Those two policy proposals emerged from a task force that has spent six-plus months looking at Maine’s only youth detention facility as part of a broader review of juvenile justice in Maine. Yet the bill to reduce Long Creek’s population by 25 percent by July 2021 – and by another 25 percent each year thereafter – is unlikely to satisfy youth activists who are demanding that the state immediately shut down a facility they compared to “kids in cages.”

“We are calling for this task force to create a piece of legislation that actually calls for the closure of the building and we will not stop until we get that,” Al Cleveland, 22, a campaign manager for Maine Youth Justice, said at a rally featuring chants of “Shut down Long Creek.” “The current legislation has no plan for closure. All it does is provide a small amount of funds, and we are saying that is not enough.”

Next week, a legislative committee will hold a public hearing on the bill by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, to phase out use of the South Portland facility while providing $3.5 million this year for community-based therapeutic services and “diversion” programs to keep juveniles out of Long Creek.

“It’s not enough. I think we all know that,” said Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, a member of the task force. “It’s a relatively small amount, so I’m hoping we raise the public awareness around the great need that we have in this state.”

The bill, crafted by lawmakers on the task force, would also direct the Maine Department of Corrections to study possible locations for two to four “small, secure therapeutic residences” in southern and central Maine that would offer courts alternative, less jail-like options.

The bill merely scratches the surface of the dozens of recommendations in a 160-page report from a national policy group hired to study Maine’s juvenile justice system. But the proposal attempts to capitalize on unusual circumstances to get something through the Legislature during this year’s short session while allowing the task force to continue working on longer-range juvenile justice issues.

“We have numbers that are low enough at Long Creek that we should be able to develop the alternatives in the community … and we should be able to make more robust our diversion programs so that the need for sending youth to Long Creek becomes even less likely,” Brennan said. Gov. Janet Mills’ administration and lawmakers are also interested in improving juvenile justice while the state has a revenue surplus, although competition for that money will be fierce.

Anthony Alfreds speaks during Maine Youth Justice’s event Tuesday in Augusta. He said Long Creek “will always have a piece of me. I will never be able to get that back.”  Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“It’s rare that all of those things line up at the same time around a particular issue, so I think it behooves us to do the best job we can, to continue to talk, to continue to compromise and continue to take advantage of the fact that we can take a big step forward,” Brennan said.

Long Creek Youth Development Center is the Department of Corrections’ only dedicated facility for young people. The facility has capacity for 163 residents but typically only holds 50 to 60 juveniles on any given day, a fact the illustrates the progress Maine has made during the past decade in diverting youth away from detention. Arrests declined by 58 percent – from 6,842 to 2,852 – from 2008 to 2018, while 86 percent of youth offenders referred to the corrections department were “diverted” to keep them out of Long Creek.

There remain long-standing concerns about the facility, however, including it’s ability to handle youth with complex mental health issues, as well as high staff turnover. Another top concern highlighted by task force members is that Long Creek is still used to detain youth who do not present a threat to themselves or others.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy issued a draft report last month that found 53 percent of youths at Long Creek were there because either their home environment was too unsafe or there were no community-based services available that could handle their behavioral or mental health needs. And roughly three-quarters of those held at Long Creek for more than 30 days were because they were awaiting placement in community-based programs, according to the study.

Tanya Pierson, an assistant district attorney in York County who exclusively handles juvenile cases, told task force members that Maine is one of the only states without a dedicated family court system. But the state Department of Health and Human Services lacks the manpower to deal with the number of juveniles in the criminal courts.

Pierson said she agreed “100 percent” that youths shouldn’t be detained for lack of anywhere else to house them but argued the state needs secure, fully staffed facilities to handle a juvenile who is likely to overdose on drugs if released. She warned against eliminating that “safety net” without having alternative safe services available in the community.

“None of us want to have youth who do not need to be detained in Long Creek,” Pierson said. “It is appalling that we have youth who need programs and who are considered safe … that we are detaining at Long Creek.”

Rallying outside the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta before the task force meeting, activists with Maine Youth Justice called on the state to use the roughly $17 million spent at Long Creek on community-based services such as mentorship programs for at-risk youth, after-school arts or cultural programs and more robust work-training or internship programs.

The group also issued a report recommending the removal of school resource officers, ending the “school-to-prison pipeline” created by school suspensions and expulsions, funding diversion programs and creating small-sized “secure confinement” homes in communities.

Anthony Alfreds, who was incarcerated at Long Creek when he was 17 years old, recalled with emotion how guards wouldn’t remove his shackles to allow him to hug his dying father in the hospital.

“That’s not OK,” Alfreds said during the rally. “Even if it gets shut down and torn down, that place will always have a piece of me. I will never be able to get that back.”

Lawmakers are also likely to discuss ending short-term incarcerations known as “shock sentences” that were once viewed as a way to scare juveniles into better behavior but that studies suggest are ineffective and could cause lasting harm.

 

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