It’s time for Maine to end the unjust and counterproductive practice of incarcerating children. The question is how.

The simple answer is “close Long Creek,” the juvenile prison in South Portland, that now houses fewer than 30 young people in a facility built for hundreds.

A better answer starts with another question: Where will they go?

A bill now before the Legislature attempts to answer that question. L.D. 546, sponsored by state Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, would mandate the creation of community-based programs around the state that would be used as an alternative to incarceration. When the programs are up and running, Brennan believes that the alternate placements would reduce the head count at Long Creek Youth Development Center to zero as soon as the end of next year

For a number of juvenile justice advocates, that’s not good enough. Representative of the ACLU, Maine Youth Justice and Maine Criminal Defense Lawyers have testified against Brennan’s bill, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough, fast enough.

They say that the Legislature needs to put an end date for Long Creek in law, and commit the state to closing its doors.

But Maine residents who remember the closures of the Pineland Center, a residential facility for Mainers with developmental disabilities, and the Augusta Mental Health Institute, the state-run psychiatric hospital that has been replaced by the smaller Riverview Psychiatric Center, may also remember that each of these was also supposed to be replaced by community-based programs. In both cases, the services had not been given the resources needed to succeed, creating extreme hardship for families and people who needed help.

Given that experience, the approach laid out in L.D. 546 makes more sense. Rather than closing Long Creek and looking for places to send the residents, the state would place the youth first and deal with the empty building later.

There are reasons that this transition would be more successful than the earlier institutions.

The Department of Corrections has been developing alternatives to detention, which has cut the population of Long Creek in half over the last year. Finding placements for fewer than 30 young people is achievable.

And there is money to carry it off. Long Creek has an annual budget of $18 million, money that could be redeployed to support community-based services for kids in crisis in the future.

Another point of contention is the bill’s call for the state to identify multiple sites for small-scale, secure residential treatment programs, which would offer an alternative placement options for young people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others.

The possibility that these facilities will turn into mini-prisons is another reason that some advocates oppose the bill. But Long Creek will never close if judges don’t have a safe option.

The most important part of the bill – and one point on which there is no disagreement – is the elimination of the language in the criminal code that instructs judges to send a youth into detention for no other reason than that they won’t get adequate supervision at home. A lack of alternatives, not the commission of a serious crime, was the most common reason young people were held at Long Creek, according to a study published last year by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.

The researchers found that most of the youths were there for committing minor crimes that would not require incarceration. The prime reason for a majority of detentions (53 percent) was to “provide care,” not to protect the community. A full 72 percent of youths detained for more than 30 days were waiting for placement in scarce community programs.

If this bill becomes law, the state would not be able to incarcerate youth only because they have nowhere else to go. The state would have to find a place.

Maine has a chance to meet the advocates’ goal – end youth incarceration and close Long Creek. L.D. 546 doesn’t get us all the way there, but it’s the right way to start.

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