Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland can house 250 but usually only 25-28 youths are there at one time Derek Davis / Press Herald file photo

Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill to close Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, but  local legislators and one nonprofit said they will still work for  a better alternative to the massive, aging building.

“We have seen this huge change in public opinion about who needs to be there and why,” said Bruce King, co-executive director of Maine Inside Out, a creative arts nonprofit geared toward working with incarcerated young people. “I do view it as a victory.”

Last week, Mills vetoed LD 1668, which would have provided for the establishment of a two-year plan to close the juvenile detention center and redistribute the $18 million used to run it for other youth programs. Mills objected to closing the facility before an alternative was in place.

Another bill, expected to pass this week, will reduce staffing at the center, freeing up as much as $2 million.

Rep. Christopher Kessler, D-South Portland/Cape Elizabeth, and Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, supported last week’s bill and are in favor of the current measure. Kessler said critics of LD 1668 accused supporters of wanting to immediately shut down the center, which remains the only place to incarcerate potentially dangerous youths in the state.

“I think the veto message mischaracterized what the bill actually is,” he said.

Morales agreed, noting the bill was the product of a year-long study by a legislative task force of the center’s history and of how similar centers were found to be unnecessary in other states. The bill proposing its closure, she added, was written with the help of youths who were once incarcerated there.

“This is not a haphazard thought process,” she said.

Morales said the center is supposed to be able to house 250 youths, with a staff of 175 running it.

“Back 10-20 years ago, it did hold 250-plus children,” she said.

Now, Morales said, there are 25-28 youths there at any one time, and with the same staffing levels it has always had.

The task force’s February 2020 report, prepared by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab at Drexel University, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, makes the case for Long Creek’s closure clear, Morales said. The center houses youths who are held pending a court proceeding and those who are serving a sentence. According to the study, in more than 40% of both detainment and commitment cases, the offense leading to incarceration at Long Creek did not involve a crime against another person.

The study also found that in 53% of detainment cases, the youths were held at Long Creek so the center could “provide care” for them. Kessler said that’s another way of describing youths with no available parent or legal guardian falling through the cracks.

“A lot of kids end up there simply because they have no place else to go,” he said.

Kessler and Morales suggest the state invest more in youth outreach and counseling programs, as well as programs to find housing for youths who otherwise might end up at a facility such as Long Creek.

King, who served time himself in a federal prison and is a critic of incarceration  corrections in general, said the state should consider a less centralized option, such as a new facility recently opened in Auburn. The building is so new it doesn’t have a name, King said, but it is run by the department of corrections as a secure community facility. It will not house more than five youths at a time, and serves the local area. Similar centers located throughout the state, King said, could offer the same services as Long Creek without removing youths from family and their communities.

“The further you remove someone from their town, you remove them from their support system,” he said.

LD 546, a bill proposed by Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, appears to be addressing some of what Kessler, Morales and King want. The bill will, among other things, trim Long Creek’s budget by $2 million and, Morales said, confirm reduction of Long Creek’s staff by 13.5 positions. The bill also requires a report be presented by Jan. 1, 2022, discussing  “2 to 4 small, secure, therapeutic residences for youths.” It is expected to pass this week.

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