In February 2020, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy released a report exposing many gaps in the conditions at Long Creek Youth Development  Center.  The report reveals that over half of the youth incarcerated at Long Creek were there to be “provided care,” since two-thirds of committed youth had prior child welfare system involvement. An alarming 73 percent of detention stays lasting longer than 30 days were for youth awaiting placement into a program. The lack of community-based programming is a major issue Maine is battling as it blindly throws upward of $300,000 per child to the Department of Corrections to “facilitate” these at-risk youths.

It has been 10 years since Maine’s juvenile justice system has been reviewed, and information and research regarding the care of children in juvenile detention facilities have been dramatically updated. Juvenile delinquency is often the result of a lack of community-based support services and mental health care. Many in underserved communities have limited access to health care and mental support services. There is also an unnecessarily high rate of imprisonment for nonviolent offenses or lack of parental guidance.

The 2020 report also found that a troubling 69 percent of youth committed to Long Creek received behavioral health services through MaineCare the year before they were committed. Which means they are still lacking the mental health care they desperately need. Studies reveal that juveniles who spend any time in a detention facility have greater odds of mental health issues in adulthood, including depression and suicidal thoughts. Disadvantaged communities have fewer institutional resources for parents to draw upon to support their efforts to raise children, such as high-quality child care, preschool programs and family centers. Compromised parental and family well-being is associated with lower-quality parenting and negative child outcomes, and consequently leads to maltreatment, resulting in an increased likelihood of involvement in crime and delinquency.

Adolescents’ brain structures are physiologically different from adults’. From a psychological standpoint, evidence-based research shows that underdeveloped adolescent brains cause acts of immaturity, irresponsibility, impulsiveness and recklessness. Studies also show that they exhibit difficulty coping with negative emotions or stressful situations. Teenagers are also at high risk for susceptibility to peer pressure and manipulation. In other words, children’s brains and the way they function when making decisions or solving problems are not fully functioning yet, and they are prone to act on impulse without measuring right or wrong behavior.

We must redirect allocated funding from the Department of Corrections and reinvest it into community-based programming that is proven to work. “Prior research demonstrates that communities can prevent violence by developing collective efficacy, which happens when neighbors share norms and values, trust one another and are willing to intervene to address problems,” community organizer Mary L. Ohmer has found. Investing in family intervention, vocational and career training resources, substance use and mental health intervention and prevention as well as the use of youth mentorship and cognitive-behavioral therapy work to rehabilitate troubled and at-risk youth. Parent support groups and children’s playgroups that allow residents to form positive social connections can help develop and strengthen social unity and trust. In turn, these community engagement efforts can support healthier child development. “Parents … reported that children had fewer mental health problems when they lived in neighborhoods where residents were actively involved in various neighborhood organizations,” according to a landmark survey in Chicago of nearly 3,000 5- to 11-year-old children and their parents. Collective efficacy affects children’s mental health positively through residents’ use of community resources.

Helping support local and national organizations for juvenile justice reform is a step in the right direction, along with reaching out to our political leaders and demanding change. It’s also very important to advocate for our political leaders to pass L.D. 546, An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Juvenile Justice System Advisory Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force. This legislation would ensure that better juvenile justice policies are in place and that there are no gaps in care for children being incarcerated.

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