Almost a year ago, thousands of Mainers took to the streets to demand state and local leaders shift resources from prisons and policing into our communities. One of the demands included closing Long Creek Youth Development Center, the last youth prison in Maine. Since then, Maine has continued to pour millions of dollars into a failed prison and policing system that harms our most marginalized community members.

For too long, leaders at all levels of government have tried to mitigate crime by pumping more money into police departments and prisons instead of investing in community programs, such as job training and mental health services, to combat the root causes. Twenty-seven young people are currently incarcerated in Long Creek Youth Development Center, which has a price tag of $18.6 million. In addition, 23 percent of the youth detained in Long Creek are Black Mainers, while Black people only represent 1.6 percent of residents in the state.

Children and young people have the right to care, education and support by their communities, and Maine’s Department for Corrections has failed to prove they have the expertise or ability to care for young people. The evidence is clear: A 2018 Department of Justice report found that 9.1 percent of youth in Long Creek reported sexual victimization while under MDOC’s control. In addition, MDOC did little to protect the young people incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to 12 Long Creek staffers testing positive for the virus. Maine prisons all together continue to have COVID-19 outbreaks, as 23 incarcerated people at the Maine Correctional Center tested positive for the virus. If we do not take urgent action to close Long Creek, youth will continue to suffer inside the facility, and carry that harm with them on the outside for the rest of their lives. Young people are inside Long Creek for multiple reasons. That is why Maine’s Legislature must pass L.D. 1668 to mandate the state close Long Creek by June 2023, create a community reinvestment fund and work with the Department of Labor to create a workforce development plan for workers.

The South Portland School Board announced in January that over 100 students are homeless this school year. A 2019 report on Maine’s juvenile justice system showed that 53 percent of detained youth in Long Creek are there because there was no community-based residential program for the youth. As well, last week, Mainers learned that the state revenue forecast is projecting a $461 million surplus. This unique budget opportunity gives our communities the ability to invest in the future of Maine’s next generation.

It’s time for those in positions of power to listen to those most affected by the decisions made about public policy – and the tax dollars that follow. By closing Long Creek and investing the $18 million operating costs into care, such as job training programs and mental health supports, we can invest in the future of our youth and our community.

Gov. Mills has the backing of her constituency to enact L.D. 1668 into law and direct Maine’s revenue stimulus into a robust continuum of care for youth. A recent poll found 59 percent of Mainers support closing existing and abstaining from building new youth prisons for a more individualized approach to youth justice, focused on each child’s circumstances and needs, rather than immediately placing young people behind bars.

L.D. 1668 would turn Long Creek into a community center with supportive housing, instead of a place of trauma, harm and punishment. It’s time to create the future of youth justice by investing public dollars in a continuum of community-based care to replace incarceration for Maine’s young people.

A world without youth prisons, replaced by a community-based continuum of care for youth, can exist. Maine’s Legislature has the opportunity to pass L.D. 1668 and transform underserved communities.

The future of Maine demands the care of our youth. Let’s get building.

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