Advocates argued strongly Friday against legislation that would gradually reduce the population at the state’s only youth prison because the proposal does not guarantee its closure.

The bill, L.D. 546, would call for the Maine Department of Corrections to set benchmarks for reducing the average daily population at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. The bill does not actually set those thresholds or a deadline to close Long Creek. The facility held more than 100 youths just eight years ago, but the population has dropped in recent years amid calls for reform. Twenty-seven young people were detained or committed there as of Friday.

The bill would also prevent the courts from locking up young people at Long Creek simply because they can’t safely go home or have nowhere else to go. The national Center for Children’s Law and Policy found 53 percent of the youths at Long Creek were there because either their home environment was too unsafe or there were no community-based services available to handle their behavioral or mental health needs. And roughly three-quarters of those held at Long Creek for more than 30 days were there because they were awaiting placement in community-based programs, according to the study.

The bill would direct the Department of Corrections to identify locations for two to four “small, secure, therapeutic residences” that would be alternatives to the South Portland facility.

Rep. Michael Brennan, a Portland Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said he did not want to set a specific date for closing the youth prison but believes this bill would eventually achieve that goal.

“We could really be looking at Long Creek no longer being used for incarceration and detention purposes as we know it today,” Brennan said.

But that plan was not enough for youth and civil rights advocates, including currently and formerly incarcerated young people. They spoke against the bill Friday during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Opponents included representatives from the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Maine Youth Justice and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Al Cleveland, campaign manager for Maine Youth Justice, said the state needs to have a clearer plan for shutting down Long Creek and directing its budget to community supports.

“We are asking this committee to listen to young people and create legislation with a plan for closure of Long Creek, a plan for reinvestment of the $18 million currently being used to incarcerate young people,” he said. “And under no circumstances should there be movement on developing and building new secure facilities for young people.”

Joseph Jackson, executive director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, also said the bill does not specifically recognize the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

“I would love to see some mechanism or strategies within any policy or bill that we create that is going to alleviate or reduce the disproportionate burden on minority groups, especially youth of color,” Jackson said.

The bill’s only supporter at the hearing was Commissioner Randy Liberty from the Maine Department of Corrections. He highlighted a new action plan for juvenile services, which would reallocate money from the Long Creek budget to transitional homes for youth and other community programming. He said the department is actively shifting its approach away from secure confinement at Long Creek.

“We know that (youth) are best served in their communities,” Liberty said.

The bill is the product of a task force that spent months studying juvenile justice in Maine. That group worked with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which published a 160-page report with dozens of recommended changes. A majority of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee endorsed a similar proposal last year, but it stalled with the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee held a virtual public hearing Friday on the latest iteration.

The legislation would funnel $2 million to the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to fund community-based services.

However, the commissioner said he does not actually support that budget allocation because the department can shift existing resources as it reduces secure confinement. And advocates said they do not want to see more money going to the department and would prefer to move juvenile justice services to another agency. That shift was a recommendation of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which said a growing number of states have taken that approach.

“Young people and their families do not have confidence that MDOC will keep them safe,” said Skye Gosselin, an organizer with Maine Youth Justice. “Youth don’t belong under correctional control. We need care and support.”

Lawmakers are also considering a bill – L.D. 320 – that would set the minimum age for prosecution in Maine at 12 years old and make other reforms.

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