December 09, 2019
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State wants to lock up offenders in their 20s alongside juveniles

AUGUSTA, Maine — A Maine Department of Corrections proposal to change a state law that bars young adults from being housed in juvenile facilities won preliminary support from an unexpected source — the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

But Jim Mackie, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 93, the union that represents Maine’s corrections workers, panned the plan, expressing concern that it’s part of a larger scheme to downsize state correctional facilities.

Jody Breton, associate commissioner for the Department of Corrections, said the department’s intent is improving rehabilitative services for young adult inmates by placing them at sites where more appropriate resources are available.

The proposed change, LR 373, An Act to Allow Young Adult Offenders to be Confined in Juvenile Correctional Facilities, appears on a list of 145 titles of proposed legislation submitted by state agencies and departments for consideration during the first session of the 126th Legislature, which starts committee work on Tuesday. The deadline to submit legislation is Jan. 18, and a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said exact wording for the proposal won’t be available until after that date.

LR 373 represents “the only significant piece of legislation” suggested by the Department of Corrections, according to Breton. It would change a state law that prohibits assigning inmates between 18 and 25 years old to juvenile facilities, where inmates between 11 and 21 are housed.

“We have excess capacity” in juvenile facilities, Breton said. “The legislation would allow us to use pods [in juvenile facilities] not currently being used to house 18- to 25-years-olds.”

Giving young adult inmates access to teachers and programs available at the juvenile facilities would improve their chances of making successful transitions into society, according to Breton.

“It would allow us to provide more specific training to that age group. There’s been a lot of research showing that brain development isn’t complete until age 25,” she said.

Mackie suspects a different motive.

“The commissioner wants to close a facility and spread inmates around in juvenile facilities,” he said, questioning whether corrections staff could buffer incarcerated teens and children from negative influences of young adult inmates. “[Commissioner Joseph Ponte] wants to shrink the Department of Corrections and consolidate prison functions.”

Breton dismissed Mackie’s speculation, noting that federal “sight and sound” regulations require juvenile offenders to be segregated from older inmates in a way that prevents visual or verbal contact.

“It’s not a plan to close facilities,” she said. “It is to better utilize facilities and programs. There would be no intermingling whatsoever.”

The Department of Corrections’ population of inmates between 18 and 25 years old numbers about 230, Breton said. Administrators have yet to determine how many inmates would be appropriate for relocation to youth facilities if the Legislature approves the proposal.

“We would want to be selective,” she said. “If they are serving a long time, they would not be the people you would want to put there. This is primarily for rehabilitative services.”

Young adults deemed to be good candidates for greater rehabilitative services would likely be transferred to the Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston, Breton said. Most of the juvenile offenders housed at Mountain View are between 16 and 19 years old.

Unless early meetings with legislators reveal significant opposition, Department of Corrections staff will start work on a timeline that would enable the changes to be put in place in September, 90 days after the Legislature’s anticipated adjournment, which is when non-emergency laws would take effect.

The budgetary impact of the proposed legislation would be minimal, Breton said.

“We have capacity, so we wouldn’t be asking for any new positions or money,” she said. “It would be a better use of the space and more targeted programming for that segment of our population.”

Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, expressed support for the concept, with a caveat that the legislation’s language is not yet available for evaluation.

“On principle, this is something that the ACLU could support,” she said. “Policies that increase access to useful programs for young adults — such as education opportunities — keep us all safer by reducing recidivism.”

Mackie, speaking on behalf of the corrections officers’ union, disagreed, questioning whether the safety of younger inmates could be assured.

“Mixing 18- to 25-year-olds with juveniles is a formula for trouble,” he said. “I certainly cannot believe any parents in Maine with a juvenile in one of those facilities would want their children confined with older, long-term incarcerated individuals.”

He said the union would work to defeat the proposal in the Legislature.

Protection from harassment

A second law change proposed by the Department of Corrections drew support from Mackie and a call for further scrutiny from Bellows.

The proposed legislation, LR 374, An Act To Prohibit Prisoners from Filing Protection from Harassment Complaints against Corrections Personnel, would require inmates to file harassment complaints against staff through the department’s administrative process rather than through the courts, Breton said.

The department’s internal process affords inmates the same due diligence as a court system, without the delays and expenses associated with the legal process, she said. The proposed change affects only protection from harassment orders, and inmates would retain the right to pursue other court or Maine Human Rights Commission options if they believe their civil rights or other legal protections have been violated.

Breton said the proposed legislation derives from a single incident, the details of which she declined to divulge.

Mackie said the change would help shield corrections officers from frivolous claims and likely reduce the time that corrections staff have to take extreme measures to ensure that inmates don’t come into contact with officers against whom they’ve filed a harassment complaint while that allegation is being investigated.

“It’s very difficult to isolate one of the guards to make sure they don’t interact with an inmate,” he said.

With corrections officers already stressed by low morale and high employee turnover, the proposed legislation would ensure that “inherent conflict between corrections officers and the people they guard” would be addressed first in a forum that reflects that context.

Bellows isn’t so sure.

“Our general line is that laws shouldn’t single out prisoners for specially disfavored treatment compared to other litigants,” she said. “Frivolous and abusive claims are brought by both prisoners and non-prisoners, and courts already have ample tools to deal with them; there’s no need to create a separate and unequal justice system that applies only to prisoners.”

Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.

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