SOUTH PORTLAND — The two black chairs are the only furniture left in the day room of the Elm Unit at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. One is upright. The other is upside down.

This unit is empty because it isn’t needed anymore. The state’s last youth prison has a capacity of 168 kids. It currently holds 36.

Maine came closer this year than ever before to closing Long Creek. A bill that would have started that process passed both chambers of the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills. Still, the question that will likely dominate debate going forward is not if Long Creek will close someday, but what will replace it. Other states are considering drastic changes to their youth prisons and looking for models that are more effective for rehabilitation, and Maine is moving in that direction too.

A new law will prevent anyone younger than 12 years old from being committed to Long Creek. The Maine Department of Corrections is taking $6 million out of the $18 million budget for Long Creek to open two transitional homes for young people leaving lockup and pay for more community programs. The Legislature has tasked the department with finding locations for smaller “secure, therapeutic residences” that could eventually replace the South Portland complex.

The governor’s veto was a particular blow to the organizers who spent months crafting that bill and rallying support for it. Maine Youth Justice formed two years ago with the goal of closing the prison where many of its members were incarcerated as kids. But Leyla Hashi, whose family member was once locked up at Long Creek, described the moment as both disappointing and hopeful.

“It’s more evident than ever that it is possible for Long Creek to be closed,” Hashi, the communications coordinator for Maine Youth Justice, said. “It is more evident than ever that youth incarceration will come to an end in Maine.”

Some advocates say Maine should not have any corrections facilities for youth, but even those who disagree do not see Long Creek filling that role for much longer.

“Long Creek was built in another era, to address another need,” Rep. Michael Brennan, a Portland Democrat, said.

NUMBERS DECREASING

National data show more than 70,000 kids were incarcerated in 2010. By the end of the decade, that number was cut in half.

The number of juvenile arrests for violent crime has been declining for years, but that trend in youth incarceration is also the result of research that shows the adolescent brain is still developing. Studies have shown that locking kids up doesn’t serve as an effective deterrent and can actually increase the likelihood that they will be arrested later as adults. Those findings have caused a shift away from punitive models for juvenile justice and toward rehabilitative ones.

Maine, like other states, has reduced its use of secure confinement. In 2010, more than 130 kids were committed or detained at one of two juvenile facilities in the state. Long Creek became the only one in 2015 when the Department of Corrections turned Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston into an adult prison.

The South Portland facility now holds 34 boys and two girls. Half are detained, or held on pending criminal charges. Half are committed, which means they have been adjudicated, the equivalent of convicted in the juvenile system. One was there for what is called a “shock sentence,” a penalty less than 30 days that is meant to be a deterrent.

Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner of the Department of Corrections, said their charges typically include very serious crimes or repeated criminal behavior to create a public safety risk, but he said he could not provide specific information because that information is confidential.

The cafeteria within the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Advocates have long called for the closure of Long Creek, but it has come under additional scrutiny in recent years in the wake of a suicide at the facility and the advocacy of Maine Youth Justice.

Maine created a task force and hired the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy to conduct an assessment of Maine’s juvenile justice system. Their work included a data analysis on youth in custody between June 2018 and May 2019. The center published a 161-page report on its findings and recommendations last year.

Among the key takeaways was that 53 percent of the young people detained at Long Creek that year did not pose any public safety risk. Instead, they could not go home for any number of reasons, like absent parents or their mental health needs, and alternative placements did not have room for them. Many youth at Long Creek – more than 40 percent of both the detained and committed groups – were not charged with or adjudicated for a crime against a person. And youth of color were overrepresented at Long Creek given census data for the state.

The report included a host of recommendations to reduce incarceration, like expanding restorative justice programs and crisis bed capacity. The center also said Maine should move juvenile justice responsibilities out of the state’s Department of Corrections and under the umbrella of another agency. The report found a need for a limited secure detention capacity for youth who pose a significant danger to others, as well as secure psychiatric residential treatment capacity for those with serious mental health problems. The last goal on the long list is: “Achieve removal of all youth from Long Creek.”

The pandemic stalled bills inspired by those recommendations. In the meantime, organizers from Maine Youth Justice began to work on a proposal of their own. L.D. 1668 would have required the state to make a plan to close Long Creek by June 30, 2023. The bill also said the $19 million budget for that facility would be redirected to services that are not administered by the Department of Corrections, and young people would have a hand in deciding how that money would be spent.

“We captured what the people needed, especially affected youth, and that is the wording that we put into the bill,” said Ladislas Nzeyimana, the advocacy coordinator for Maine Youth Justice. “What I felt was very important was the opportunity to invest in the future of our youth, the future of our community.”

Two dozen people testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing, but the Mills administration opposed the idea. The measure passed both chambers, but not with the numbers needed to override the governor’s veto. Spokespeople for Mills did not respond to an interview request.

“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,” Mills wrote in a letter about her veto. “Responsible juvenile justice reform also takes into account the needs of public safety. I object to this legislation for its failure to do so.”

A basketball hoop is surrounded by chain-link fencing at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rep. Grayson Lookner, a Portland Democrat, sponsored L.D. 1668 on behalf of Maine Youth Justice. He said the bill was really about creating a plan to wind down Long Creek over the next two years.

“They’re going to tell us in two or three years that there aren’t any residents left in Long Creek,” Lookner said. “There will still be a facility. There will still be a huge budget. So why the heck not just take the opportunity to create a plan to close that place for good?”

SECURE RESIDENCES

The current budget directs the Department of Corrections to report by February on possible locations for two to four “secure, therapeutic residences” with a combined capacity of up to 20 youth. At least one should be in Cumberland County and one in Penobscot County. Brennan, who sponsored the bill that was the source for that language, said that model could keep kids closer to their home communities and focus on treatment.

“The future of Long Creek is pretty clear,” Brennan said. “I think it will be empty. But to establish an end date without making sure that we have those types of facilities and those types of alternatives can be problematic.”

O’Neill said he did not know if those residences could replace Long Creek, but he believes Maine will always need a secure option for youth. He said the department has been working with housing and shelter programs for kids who do not pose a public safety risk, but those that remain at Long Creek do.

“As we move into the next phase, which is to seek out smaller, secure residences, I think then that will show what role Long Creek will play within the future of the juvenile justice system and if it has any relevancy,” O’Neill said.

Maine Youth Justice is opposed to that plan. They want to see more resources in the community to intervene with children and families long before they have contact with the criminal justice system, and they said even kids who are accused of violent crimes should receive services outside of a corrections facility.

“Young people who cause harm often are victims themselves and sending a young person to prison will only worsen the conditions that led to harm,” Al Cleveland, the campaign manager for Maine Youth Justice, said. “Young people need spaces to heal, get their needs met, and the ability to have generative relationships with their peers and adults. A youth prison cannot be that place because it takes them away from their families and communities, exacerbates underlying trauma they have experienced, and doesn’t allow them to engage in a restorative or transformative justice process.”

For the first time, lawmakers did put a limit this year on incarceration for the youngest children. Kids under 12 years old will no longer be detained for longer than a week or committed for any period of time to Long Creek.

Rep. Victoria Morales, the South Portland Democrat who sponsored that bill, originally wanted to prevent any child that age from being charged with a crime at all. Morales argued that children who harm others at that age are likely expressing trauma, and they often end up in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services rather than the Department of Corrections because they are not competent to stand trial.

The Co-op Room within Long Creek Youth Development Center is set up for career training – in this case a retail clothing store. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But some lawmakers were concerned about what that change would mean in the very rare cases when a young person commits a serious act of violence, like a homicide, and Morales said the administration wasn’t ready to address such behavior outside of the criminal justice system. The version signed by the governor was a compromise.

“I think it came out of legitimate concern that they might not be able to keep kids safe. … I certainly want to keep kids safe as well,” Morales said. “I just don’t think incarceration is providing any safety, particularly when we’re talking about our youngest kids.”

That new law also eliminated a minimum commitment of one year, a period that is longer than the penalty for many misdemeanors under the adult code. Most kids at Long Creek serve indeterminate sentences, which means the staff has some control over the timing of their release, but that change could mean they spend less time under supervision by the department. It also guarantees kids who have been committed the right to a defense lawyer paid for by the state.

The governor also signed a bill that put new protections on criminal records in juvenile cases, and another that will prevent elementary students from being expelled or suspended from school. She vetoed a bill that would have required police and prosecutors to consider diversion before arresting young adults between 18 and 25 years old for certain crimes.

CONFLICTING IMAGES

Some parts of Long Creek look like a high school – the classrooms with colorful posters on the walls, the library with a skylight, the gymnasium with basketballs left on the court. Other parts recall something else entirely – the tall fence around the perimeter, the piano with a padlock, the single cells with waiting green mattresses on the cots.

No state has eliminated secure confinement entirely, but some are shifting from large prisons to smaller secure residences, focusing on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Other states are enacting laws to divert kids from formal court processing and provide alternatives to detention. Nearby, Vermont closed its only juvenile detention facility last year and plans to replace it with a small secure treatment center run by a private treatment provider. New Hampshire is creating a similar transition plan.

Doors within the gymnasium at the Long Creek Youth Development Center are labeled with words of encouragement. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Even if Maine hasn’t committed to that transition, Long Creek is changing. State officials said they are working to reduce both the use of secure confinement and the length of stay in that environment. Three out of six units are empty. The sports teams do not have enough players to compete as they once did. Vocational programs that were geared toward kids who would be at Long Creek for months, like carpentry, have been replaced with shorter options, like a current program on working in retail.

“One of the things we’re working on is what needs to be done in a secure environment,” O’Neill said.

Last year, the department created a new action plan for juvenile services. One step was to open housing for kids who do not need to be in a secure environment so they can begin their transition out of Long Creek. The first opened in South Portland in December, and O’Neill said one of the girls currently at Long Creek is expected to move there by next week. The second will open in Auburn this fall and will be dedicated to boys. O’Neill said those programs are staffed by social workers and teachers, as well as the juvenile equivalent of corrections officers.

The action plan also led to the creation of three regional care teams. Representatives from state agencies and local service providers meet once a month to review individual cases and work together to meet the needs of the young person in question. The department also reallocated $6 million from the Long Creek budget to pay for new transitional housing programs and more services in the community, like rental assistance. O’Neill said Maine particularly needs to ensure kids in rural areas have access to the same options as those in more populated communities.

“They don’t have to stay as long if there is something to step down to,” O’Neill said. “Long Creek isn’t an island. It’s part of a continuum.”

For Maine Youth Justice, the goal is the same as it has always been. Organizers said they would continue to fight for the end of youth incarceration in Maine by working with legislators, doing outreach in their communities and sharing the stories of people who have been locked up.

“The people spoke,” Adan Abdikadir, an organizer based in Lewiston, said. “This is what we want. This is the future we’re looking at.”

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