The Maine House voted Thursday to approve a bill directing the Maine Department of Corrections to close the state’s only prison for minors within two years.

The partisan, 81-57 vote follows years of study, debate and youth activism surrounding South Portland’s Long Creek Youth Development Center and more generally, juvenile justice reform in the state. But proponents of closing Long Creek could face additional challenges in the Maine Senate and would have to pick up more support to overcome a potential veto by Gov. Janet Mills.

“We have an opportunity before us with this bill to do something monumental today … for youth who fall through the cracks and end up involved in the juvenile justice system,” said Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, the measure’s lead sponsor. “These are minors and they deserve the same amount of attention and support that we would provide to any other youth in our state.”

The bill, L.D. 1668, would require the Maine Department of Corrections to develop a plan to close Long Creek by June 30, 2023.

The nearly $19 million spent on Long Creek annually would, instead, be invested in “a continuum of community-based alternatives” – including supportive and community-based housing, education, job training, and mental heath and substance use treatment programs – for minors either incarcerated in South Portland or who might have ended up there in the future. Responsibility for caring for these youths would also be transferred to another agency or entity, the details of which would be developed by the Legislature, likely next year.

Supporters in the House argued that Long Creek is too large, too old and too antiquated to adequately provide the type of “restorative care” that young people need to help them avoid a life spent in and out of the criminal justice system. They also pointed out that the state is currently paying more than $600,000 a year per resident for the 27 youths detained in a facility built to house more than 200.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, co-chair of the committee that reviewed the bill and a member of a juvenile justice reform task force, said the state will always have a need for secure facilities to detain young people for the term of a court-imposed sentence. And the department is moving in that direction, but not quickly enough.

“The Department of Corrections is on its way,” Warren said. “What the Department of Corrections is unwilling to do is to let go of a facility that is licensed to serve over 200 youth, that we no longer need, that taxpayers are supporting, and that is not right-sized.”

Youth activists and advocates for juvenile justice reform have been pushing for years to close a facility that they compare to putting “kids in cages” and instead, create community-based programs to support young people and provide mental health support. Several lawsuits have alleged abuse or mistreatment of youth at Long Creek as well.

There are also long-standing concerns about the facility’s ability to handle youth with complex mental health issues, as well as high staff turnover. A report from a national policy group hired to study Maine’s juvenile justice system also raised alarms about youths who do not present a threat to themselves or others, but are often detained at Long Creek because there is nowhere else for the state to send them.

In testimony to a legislative committee, Maine corrections officials said they plan to close Long Creek at some point but not in the immediate future. Instead, the department is in the middle of implementing an action plan “to lessen the reliance on institutional secure confinement for youth.”

That plan, which is based on recommendations of the juvenile justice task force and the outside consultant’s report, includes creating more community-based options for housing young people.

“We are more than willing to modify as we go, but that does not include closure of the Long Creek Youth Development Center,” Randall Liberty, commissioner of the department, wrote to members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Opponents of the bill urged their colleagues to give the department more time to move in that direction rather than take what they view as a premature step of closing Long Creek within two years. Rep. Michael Lemelin, R-Chelsea, said that the “children” housed at Long Creek need help to bring them back into society. But, he added, “They are criminals, they are dangerous to themselves and one another.”

“We need to close the facility, but why not wait?” Lemelin said. “Why not let the plan go through because I know that we have no place to put these kids.”

Rep. Will Tuell, R-East Machias, also said his community knows from personal experience that it can take years to reopen or replace correctional facilities once they’ve been closed.

Tuell and bipartisan members of Washington County’s delegation waged an intense yet unsuccessful battle with former Republican Gov. Paul LePage over the fate of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. LePage closed the minimum-security prison in early 2018, and while the Mills administration reversed course a year later, the facility is still not open.

“I will definitely be supporting the department in this because I think it’s critical that we support all of our facilities, both state and county,” Tuell said. “Removing one from the system really has ripples across the system that nobody can understand or appreciate.”

But supporters said that the June 2023 deadline gives the department enough time to prepare for that transition. They also pointed out that, unlike with the Downeast Correctional Facility, the plan to close Long Creek includes resources to help employees transition to other jobs.

“I can tell you that my constituents would like to see this happen,” Rep. Christopher Kessler, D-South Portland.

Maine Youth Justice, one of the organizations leading the push to close Long Creek, said Thursday’s House vote was “a crucial and important step in ending the harmful and traumatic practice of youth incarceration” that moves Maine “closer to a more just and fair system.”

“The bill, envisioned, written and advocated for by formerly and currently incarcerated youth shows the power of collective action,” said Maine Youth Justice communications coordinator Leyla Hashi. “Now the state Senate must move forward and pass LD 1668 and end youth incarceration in the state once and for all. With the closure of Long Creek, we can start supporting youth with community resources, which would prevent crime before it occurs. By nurturing young people instead of harshly punishing them, we can start healing at the root of the problems.”

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