Their still-forming brains can’t grasp the full gravity of what they’ve done. Whatever harm they’ve laid on society is eclipsed by the trauma caused by incarceration and separation from friends, family and routine. Future criminal acts become more likely, not less.

For those reasons and others, no child belongs in jail.

On that front, Maine has been moving in the right direction for years. But while only a few dozen youths are at Long Creek, Maine’s only youth detention center, that is still too many – particularly when they’re barely in middle school.

In 2019, 16 children under the age of 12 were charged with a crime, the Press Herald reported last week. In 2020, eight were charged. Some of the offenses were serious; most were misdemeanors. Many of them end up at Long Creek.

Most of the time, however, a child ends up at Long Creek not because of what they’ve done but because there is nowhere else to put them. A little more than half of the youths at the detention center are there because their home environment was unsafe and there was no place to house them, a previous study found. About three-quarters of the youth are at Long Creek awaiting placement in scarce community-based services.

For the state, Long Creek is a place of last resort. For children, especially the youngest, being put in a lockdown environment is traumatic.

In 2018, an 11-year-old with mental illness was sent to Long Creek after acting out at a public swimming pool. A lawsuit, later settled, alleged he was denied treatment. In any case, his condition deteriorated. The detention center is simply not equipped to deal with the state’s most vulnerable young people.

A jail could never be – children at that age, no matter their challenges, need something else.

That’s why lawmakers should pass L.D. 320, which would set the minimum age of criminal prosecution at 12 and discourage putting anyone under the age of 14 at Long Creek. It would also eliminate the mandatory minimum of one year at the youth prison and create more frequent judicial reviews, aimed at minimizing stays at Long Creek.

Lawmakers must, too, make sure that there are alternatives to sending a child to Long Creek. The state-commissioned report on reforming the juvenile justice system, released last year, calls for a continuum of effective, valued and well-funded community-based services.

Maine used to incarcerate hundreds of its children at a time. By 2010, the population at Long Creek was down to 125 or so. Now, on average, it’s below 40.

It is well past time for Maine to get that number down to zero – to make sure that the young people there now and any future youths in trouble get the help they need outside of a locked room.

Maine has come a long way. But the juvenile justice system as it is structured now is no place for a young person.

Let the reform continue here – starting with the youngest.


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