AUGUSTA — Advocates and lawmakers testified Wednesday on a bill that aims to reduce the number of Maine youths being held in confinement at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

The center, the Maine Department of Corrections’ only secure facility for juveniles, has been fraught with controversy over the treatment of the young people held there, including civil lawsuits and concerns over suicide attempts among other issues.

The bill, which carries a $3.5 million price tag and is the result of months of work by a task force, was described repeatedly as an important first step in fixing a broken youth corrections system that may be doing more harm than good.

And while no witnesses testified in opposition to the legislation, many advocates, including former inmates at the facility, took a neutral stance, saying they were doing so because the bill did not go far enough toward closing Long Creek or because it calls for an additional $2.5 million to go to the Department of Corrections to create smaller community-based secure facilities for youth entangled in the criminal justice system.

Long Creek has the capacity for 163 residents but typically only holds 50 to 60 juveniles on any given day, a fact some say 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.

On Wednesday, officials told lawmakers hearing the bill before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that 28 youths were being held at the facility, some of whom are there because the state has no other safe place to house them, not because of the nature of the crimes they have committed or have been accused of committing.

Some said the bill also does not move quickly enough to eliminate the need for Long Creek by gradually reducing the facility’s population by 25 percent each year over the next two years until its capacity is only 30 beds. Others said the funding in the bill was far too little to do what was actually needed to abate the issues around youth incarceration in Maine.

“We want to draw a line in the sand, because we say we care for our young people, we want better for our young people and we want it now,” said Joseph Jackson, the director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

Jackson, himself an inmate for 20 years, said the state should be diverting money not to the Department of Corrections, but to community-based organizations that serve young people to prevent them from ending up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

It was a theme hit upon by others who said services for troubled youth, many of them traumatized by neglect or abuse, were ending up in Long Creek. For many the facility was their entry point for a life of incarceration and increasingly more serious crimes, Natasha Irving, the district attorney for Knox, Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties, told the committee.

Irving related an anecdote from her time as a defense attorney and her work with an inmate at the Maine State Prison.

“He had a long record,” Irving said. “The reason he entered into the criminal justice system is because his mom’s parental rights were terminated when he was 12 and he refused to stay in his abusive foster placement so he kept running away and for his own safety he was put at Long Creek.”

And Irving said that inmate was far from the only person who started their criminal life at Long Creek.

“Incarcerating children is traumatic,” Irving said. “And trauma causes criminogenic behavior and if we continue to do this to children, we will continue to have adults at the Maine State Prison.”

Irving was among those who said the $3.5 million funding in the bill – with $2.5 for the Department of Corrections and another $1 million for the Department of Health and Human Services – is far shy of what was actually needed.

“My hope is that we take this big first step,” she said. “But my other really big hope is we start doing the real work, which is putting our money where our mouth is and investing in children. These are children who are survivors of trauma, of abuse, and we care about those children, we all do, so we have to start coming through for them.”

Among those testifying in support of the bill was Linda Pistner, an attorney with the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat. Pistner offered support for the bill on behalf of the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Safety.

Pistner said Mills’ administration already had taken many actions to divert both children and adults from entering the criminal justice system by offering greater access to things behavioral health services.

Pistner also said DHHS was now planning for how it would utilize new funding likely to begin coming to Maine in October 2021 under the federal Families First Prevention Services Act.

The federal law is meant to help with the national opioid crisis and earmarks money for states to use for parenting classes, mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment.

The committee will now begin to work on the bill, with possible amendments and changes to being proposed starting sometime next week.

 

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