The first time I went to Long Creek Youth Development Center was for a volunteer training in 2019 as part of my job at a local social services agency. My biggest takeaway from the training was that every volunteer and staff member who went inside the facility needed to wear a “man-down button” at all times. If the button was pressed, a group of specially trained juvenile corrections officers would immediately respond at a sprint in order to intervene in a crisis.

Our trainer warned us, “If you see a group of people running at you, get out of the way.” I couldn’t help but think about what it would be like to live in a place where this constant threat was just part of everyday life and the effects of living in a correctional facility, especially during such formative years.

Juvenile justice reform is an important part of our reckoning with structures of discrimination, inequity, and oppression. Juvenile justice-involved youth are frequently some of the most vulnerable people in our state. These children regularly have high Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores with extensive histories of abuse and neglect and are in desperate need of trauma-informed and culturally specific care.

Overall, the juvenile justice system in Maine (as it currently stands) is costly, traumatizing, and ineffective.

L.D. 320: An Act to Provide the Right to Counsel for Juveniles and Improve Due Process for Juveniles offers a number of reforms to the juvenile justice system including age limits on how old a child must be for system involvement. This bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Victoria Morales and Sen. Lisa Keim would keep children under the age of 12 from being prosecuted and children under the age of 14 from being incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. This approach of limiting who is eligible for prosecution and detention is a practical solution that will lead to a lower number of justice-involved youth, both out in the community and those committed to a correctional facility.

LD 320 also contains a variety of measures to protect a juvenile’s rights once in the system. Under this legislation, once a juvenile is committed to a DOC juvenile corrections facility (i.e. Long Creek Youth Development Center), the court will appoint an attorney to represent the child throughout the length of their stay at the facility. Ensuring that youth who are incarcerated have access legal advocacy helps to protect the rights of these children while committed to the facility. Additionally, LD 320 eliminates a minimum sentencing requirement that youth who are committed (sentenced) to a juvenile corrections facility be committed for at least a year.

At the end of the day, nobody wins when children are incarcerated. LD 320 would help to curb the level of harm caused by the system and ensure that children only interact with the justice system when no other alternative exists. This bill will help to refocus the juvenile justice system on rehabilitation rather than punishment and will lay the groundwork for funding to be redirected from corrections to communities in desperate need of support.

— Special to the Press Herald

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