Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a bill requiring the Maine Department of Corrections to close Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland within two years.

In her veto message to lawmakers dated Monday, Mills called the bill “fundamentally flawed” and “a simplistic solution to a complex problem” because it would close Maine’s only youth detention facility before alternative sites are available. The bill would require the state to develop a plan to close Long Creek – which currently houses just a few dozen young people – by June 30, 2023, and re-direct the facility’s roughly $19 million budget to a range of “community-based alternatives.”

“If this bill were to become law, Maine would become the only state in the nation without a secure facility to serve the needs of youth who require detention for some period because they represent a risk to themselves or others in the course of their rehabilitation,” wrote Mills, a former Maine attorney general and prosecutor. “Responsible juvenile justice reform also takes into account the needs of public safety. I object to this legislation for its failure to do so.”

The governor also vetoed six other bills, including a measure aimed at preventing Hydro-Quebec from spending money on a referendum to stop construction of the company’s controversial transmission line project with Central Maine Power.

Mills’ veto of the Long Creek bill, L.D. 1668, could derail, or at least delay, a move that juvenile justice reform advocates have been pursuing for years.

The Maine Senate narrowly passed the measure this month on a vote of 19-15 – far short of the two-thirds majority supporters would need to override a gubernatorial veto. The House voted 81-57 to pass the bill, also below the super-majority needed for an override.

But the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Grayson Lookner of Portland, said receiving majority support in both legislative chambers is the closest closure advocates have come. Lookner said he and the youth coalition behind the bill will “do all that we can” to reverse the veto, but added that Long Creek’s future is limited regardless of outcome next week on the House and Senate floors.

Lookner said there is growing recognition in Maine and other states that youths who make mistakes or act in desperation need help and support, not punitive institutionalization.

“The bottom line is that Long Creek is closing one way or another,” Lookner said. “It will be empty of youth within a few years no matter what happens … so in the end we will be able to declare victory and say we don’t have youth prisons in Maine and we will be able to say we have … more restorative justice for youth.”

Policymakers in other states are examining whether to shutter youth detention centers. In neighboring New Hampshire, for instance, the Legislature was slated to vote this week on a budget item that would close that state’s aging youth facility amid recent allegations of abuse.

Supporters of L.D. 1668 argue that Long Creek is too large, old and antiquated to adequately provide the type of restorative care and mental health support needed to help young people avoid becoming mired in the criminal justice system for years or a lifetime. The facility has also grappled with high staff turnover and been the target of several lawsuits in recent years alleging mistreatment of youths.

There are currently only 31 young people being housed at Long Creek, which was built to accommodate more than 200. A 2020 report by a national policy group hired to examine Maine’s juvenile justice system also raised alarms that young people who pose no threat to themselves or others are often detained at Long Creek because there is nowhere else for the state to send them.

Mills said the Department of Corrections worked closely with a multi-year juvenile justice task force as well as the outside policy organization to implement systemic reforms. Those initiatives include opening two transitional residences for those leaving Long Creek and shifting $6 million to other community-based programs.

“These initiatives have already shown real results,” Mills wrote to lawmakers. “DOC’s expansion of community-based programs and services statewide has undoubtedly prevented numerous at-risk youth from entering the system.”

Some of those pushing to close Long Creek strongly criticized Mills’ veto, however.

“Governor Mills had the power to end the nightmare that young people in Long Creek are experiencing by creating a plan to close Long Creek and invest in a safe and healthy future for our young people,” Ladi Nzeyimana, youth organizer with Maine Youth Justice, said in a statement. “Young people are calling for a community center and housing for Maine youth in place of the prison. Governor Mills had the opportunity to shift the punitive and violent tradition of the criminal legal system and chose to maintain the status quo.”

Lookner said many of the concerns Mills raised in her veto letter would likely be addressed in the plan that the Maine Department of Corrections would be required to prepare for closing Long Creek. That plan would be due to the Legislature by year’s end.

 

FOREIGN SPENDING ON REFERENDUM CAMPAIGNS

Lawmakers are expected to return to Augusta on June 30 to take up the seven bills vetoed by Mills as well as any others vetoed in the coming days. One other vetoed measure likely to spark a lively debate focuses on the controversial proposal to build a high-voltage, 145-mile long transmission line through western Maine from Quebec.

The bill, L.D. 194, seeks to prohibit foreign governments or any entity partially owned by a foreign government from directly or indirectly donating to or spending money on a referendum campaign. The bill passed the Senate on a vote of 23-11 and the House on a vote of 87-54, both of which fall short of the two-thirds majorities needed to override Mills’ veto.

The bill is a direct response to massive amounts of spending in the debate over the transmission line needed to enable Massachusetts to purchase hydropower from Quebec as part of the state’s renewable energy goals. A Hydro-Quebec affiliate, H.Q. Energy Services, had contributed $9.3 million through the end of March to the Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership ballot question committee created to oppose a referendum campaign being waged by opponents of the transmission line.

In her veto message, Mills said dozens of Maine businesses with foreign investment – including Woodland Pulp, Backyard Farms and Sprague Energy – could be barred from participating in referendum debates. The bill would prohibit such political spending for any entity in which a foreign government owns at least a 10 percent stake.

But Mills also said that the bill poses constitutional concerns based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings on attempts to limit political speech or spending.

“If L.D. 194 were to become law, I question whether it could survive constitutional challenge,” Mills wrote. “But more fundamentally, I trust Maine voters to sort through competing views as they consider how to cast their vote in any referendum, and I see no need for state government to protect them from information coming from any particular source, in accordance with our already robust disclosure requirements.”

Anna Kellar, executive director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said in a statement that she was disappointed by the governor’s objection to the bill.

“LD 194, which received overwhelming public and bipartisan lawmaker support at its public hearing, would close an important loophole in our laws by preventing foreign governments from spending in ballot question campaigns,” Kellar said. “This commonsense reform was supported by a majority of the U.S. Congress as a part of the For The People Act, and we agree with a majority of Congress and the Maine Legislature that this bill is neither unconstitutional nor offensive to the political process.”

BANNING ‘PRETEXTUAL’ TRAFFIC STOPS

Mills also vetoed a bill, L.D.  417, which would have prohibited police from “pretextual traffic stops” – a practice that bill supporters contend is disproportionately used against Black, Latino, Indigenous or other people of color in Maine and nationwide.

In a “pretextual” stop, police pull over a vehicle for an often-minor driving violation in order to look for other criminal activity or merely because the driver looks suspicious. Police and law enforcement officials argue such stops are useful in apprehending people engaged in criminal activity that is not readily apparent. But groups such as the ACLU of Maine say minority groups are often the targets of such stops without any justification, causing stress to the affected individuals and undermining public confidence in police.

The bill that Mills vetoed would prohibit such pretextual stops when “the law enforcement officer does not at the time of the stop have an articulable suspicion” of other criminal behavior. The bill would also prohibit any evidence gathered as a result of a pretextual stop from being used against the defendant in charges unrelated to the traffic stop.

Mills wrote that the bill’s prohibition is “overbroad, unrealistic and dangerous” because it could prevent police from detecting other crimes. In one example, Mills said police would be prohibited from asking “Is that blood on your shirt” and any evidence of a violent crime that occurred, including murder, would be inadmissible.

Mills also pointed out that Maine law enforcement policies prohibit officers from stopping a vehicle because of a driver’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, religion, socioeconomic status, age or national origin.

OTHER VETOES

The other bills vetoed by Mills are:

• L.D. 418, which would increase the real estate transfer tax rate on properties that sell for more than $1 million.

• L.D. 710, which would change several laws related to impaired driving, gross sexual assault and other sexual crimes.

• L.D. 847, which deals with diversion programs for young people charged with crimes.

• L.D. 1253, which would have required the appointment of a faculty member and a non-faculty staff member to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees.

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