As we reflect on black history in Maine this month, it’s important to recognize the connection between previous racist systems – like the antebellum slave trade and the forced institutionalization of mixed-race families who resided on Malaga Island – and the current disparities that black Mainers, including our immigrant brothers and sisters, now face. The debate around closing Long Creek Youth Development Center, Maine’s youth prison, highlights how racism still exists in many of our institutions today and how it too often determines the fate of black youth in our state.

This debate, though, offers us more than just insight – it’s given us a unique opportunity to upend the status quo and to reimagine and truly transform our youth justice system. We should start by closing Long Creek and putting a stop to the racial injustices in our youth justice system.

Right now, Maine’s youth of color are frequently targeted and disproportionately separated from their families and communities and locked up in Long Creek. Black youth detained in the prison represent an estimated 23 percent of the youth at Long Creek, which is nearly 12 times the Black representation in Maine’s youth population at large. And just over 16 percent of young black Mainers are legally committed to serving time. It’s time for Mainers to acknowledge implicit racial bias driving who comes into contact with the youth justice system.

Many black youth and community members get funneled into the system because of a combination of lack of resources and opportunities. Rather than helping to solve the problems in these communities, Long Creek exacerbates the issues by further cutting off youth from the opportunities and support they need to grow and thrive. The system as it currently exists is designed to keep our vulnerable black youth in a never-ending spiral of misery and hopelessness.

When someone gets thrown into this system, they are guaranteed to lose more than their freedom. As they go through the system, many often lose their relationships with family, jobs, education opportunities, health and so much more. Youth prisons are a modern iteration of the slave trade or Jim Crow.

But we can change that. We can repurpose Long Creek for the good of the community, but first we must uncouple the money our state spends on Long Creek from the facility. By untying the money that is being used to fund a broken and ineffective system, we can invest directly in the communities where the most impacted youth live.

In their most recent meeting, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy recommended that the Maine Juvenile Justice Task Force propose diverting youth away from the courts in order to diminish the youth prison pipeline. We can agree that youth prisons should not be used to treat youth. However, much more can and should be done in these conditions. The task force should go further and listen to the affected youth and communities calling on them to create a new vision of youth justice in Maine.

By listening to directly affected communities, we can more successfully design the full range of support and services needed to hold youth accountable, promote healing and justice and ensure communities have the resources to implement their vision.

Black History Month serves as a reminder that if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, it is our duty to not only reflect on the overwhelmingly negative impact that the criminal justice system has on our black youth but to also take action. The color of your skin shouldn’t determine your involvement with the justice system. If Maine can unite and tackle the racism in our own backyard, perhaps we can prove once and for all that the arc of our moral universe truly bends toward justice.

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