In a narrow vote Monday, the Maine Senate approved legislation that would direct the state to close Long Creek Youth Development Center, Maine’s only youth prison, within two years.

The bill was approved by a 19-15 vote, with three Senate Democrats voting with Republicans against the measure. The Maine House of Representatives had approved the bill last week in an 81-57, mostly party-line vote.

The biggest question mark, though, remains whether Gov. Janet Mills, a longtime former prosecutor, will sign the bill or veto it. If she vetoes, two-thirds of lawmakers would have to vote to overturn the veto, which might be a challenge.

Speaking Monday in support of the bill, Sen. Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro said the research is clear that youth imprisonment is both ineffective and expensive, and that many who wind up at Long Creek have mental health needs, but don’t have other options.

“This is bad for kids and bad for taxpayers,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t have to be locked up to access mental health services.”

Sen. Craig Hickman, a Democrat from Winthrop, also spoke in favor. He began by reading a list of names of youths who have died at the South Portland facility over the years. Like Maxmin, Hickman said Maine has failed these individuals.

“More than half are there because we can’t find a safer, more appropriate place to provide mental health treatment for them,” he said.

If passed, the bill, L.D. 1668, will require Long Creek to close by June 30, 2023, and would direct the nearly $19 million spent on Long Creek annually to 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.

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.

“This win is a direct result of the hard work of formerly and currently incarcerated young people, who used their voices and stories to make real change happen,” said Leyla Hashi of Maine Youth Justice. “Now, Gov. Mills has a responsibility to sign L.D. 1668 into law, close Long Creek and create a better future for all Mainers.”

Opponents of the bill, however, said the Department of Corrections already has been working on making changes to how it runs Long Creek, but they do not include closing the facility in the near 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 an outside consultant’s report, includes creating more community-based options for housing young people, similar to what L.D. 1668 calls for.

Sen. Susan Deschambault, a Democrat from Biddeford who previously worked in corrections, said the department should be given more time to implement the task force recommendations. She also challenged the notion that kids are being locked up without cause. She said those who are committed to Long Creek have committed a serious crime.

“A judge has to sentence you there … they don’t just open the door,” Deschambault said.

She called the closure bill “well-intended but unnecessary.”

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