AUGUSTA, Maine — Youth confined in correctional facilities across the United States recently hit a 35-year low, and Maine is part of the trend, according to a new study.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation released a study this week that found youth confinement declined by 37 percent in the country from 1997 to 2010. Maine saw a 35 percent decrease in that same time span. The foundation is a private charity dedicated to helping disadvantaged children.
There was an all-time high of 381 children incarcerated per 100,000 nationally in 1995. In 2010, the number was down to a 35-year low of 225 per 100,000, the study found.
Barry Stoodley, former associate commissioner for the Division of Juvenile Services for the Maine Department of Corrections, said it has taken a change in approach to accomplish the shift in the state.
“If one were to drop into how the work was done 15 years ago, it would be almost unrecognizable to what we do today,” Stoodley said on Thursday.
Nationally, the United States had 105,055 juveniles in confinement in 1997, or 356 per 100,000 youths. By 2010, that number had dropped to 70,792, or 225 per 100,000.
Maine saw a similar decrease. In 1997, the state had 318 juveniles in confinement, or 219 per 100,000. In 2010, that number was down to 186, or 142 per 100,000 children — the ninth lowest rate in the nation. On Thursday, there were 144 youth in two Maine correctional facilities — Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston. That number was a decrease of 26 juveniles from 2012, said Stoodley.
In all, 44 states plus the District of Columbia saw double-digit decreases in the percentage of children incarcerated. Connecticut dropped 65 percent from 1997 to 2010 and Tennessee dropped 66 percent.
The percentages for Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and West Virginia all rose. Idaho’s incarcerated youth increased by 80 percent and West Virginia rose by 60 percent.
About 15 years ago, Maine’s correctional system had pressure from the media, Gov. Angus King and the Legislature to make changes in how it handled juvenile rehabilitation, said Stoodley.
Planning for the changes began in the late 1990s, but got traction in 2000, he said.
Joseph Lehman was brought on as corrections commissioner and two youth development centers were opened in 2002.
“We looked at what programs were available and what methodologies were available, and one by one, we started to bring those programs into our facilities,” said Stoodley.
No longer was there group therapy and failing schools, he said. Now there would be individual-focused methods specified to the needs of the youths.
Stoodley said reducing recidivism, or children committing offenses after being incarcerated, was the biggest key in lowering the number. Youth arrested for juvenile crimes decreased by 26 percent from 2001 to 2010, said Stoodley, although the rate of arrest for violent offenses increased by 28 percent.
“If we can focus the resources we have on the dynamic risk domains of the individual kids that are under supervision or incarcerated, there’s a high likelihood we can impact the result and lower the likelihood of recidivism,” said Stoodley. “It’s not a feel-good approach, it’s a planned approach. We have very intensive training for our staff.”
Today, 5 percent of Maine’s youth imprisoned population is made up of children age 14 or younger; 13 percent are 15 years old, 25 percent are 16, 38 percent are 17 and 19 percent are 18 or older. Juveniles can be kept in youth detention centers until they reach age 21.
“Primarily what we’ve done in the past 10 or 12 years is we’ve implemented a variety of best practices,” said Stoodley. “We’ve researched what is effective with children, what’s cost effective and what reduces recidivism rates.”
“We want to make sure that when they come out, that they’re not inflicting more harm on victims,” he said.
Stoodley said that 200 different standards are used to make sure juveniles are being rehabilitated and don’t commit more crimes.
“We’re pulling data out of the facilities about the operations and programs,” he said. “Are kids improving on math tests? Are staff or kids being hurt? Are staff or kids in fear? We graph these standards every six months. If there are areas we find are lacking, we’ll develop improvement plans.”
The department can see the programs are working because kids aren’t coming back to the facilities as often, he said. In 1999, about 75 percent of juveniles returned to the correctional centers based on new offenses. The rate dropped to just 30 percent a few years ago, said Stoodley.
“This year, it looks like that might be as low as 10 percent,” he said.
Keeping juveniles from returning to correctional facilities “is the core of our work,” Stoodley said. “When we get the kids placed under our supervision, the goal is to make sure they don’t come back.”
The change didn’t happen overnight, he said.
“The bottom line is it’s commitment and focus that makes a difference over time,” said Stoodley.