April 09, 2020
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How Maine can shut the revolving door of incarceration for young adult offenders

Ellen M. Banner | Seattle Times/MCT
Ellen M. Banner | Seattle Times/MCT
Debra Heintz, an inmate at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, talks recently during an "If Project" session about prison and the things she's missing. The project asks questions of inmates and former inmates, then carries the heartfelt responses to at-risk youth.

The Maine Department of Corrections is pioneering a new incarceration approach for young adult offenders. Launched April 2 at Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston, the program is starting with 24 moderate-level offenders ages 18 to 25 and treating them similar to the way the detention center treats juveniles: by identifying the risks they face to reoffending and working to overcome them; providing strong mental health services, substance abuse treatment, education and vocational training, family therapy and parenting education; and creating a solid plan for when the offenders are released.

This program for first-time offenders in the adult corrections system represents a dramatic but common-sense shift in the way Maine handles its jails. It’s not a softening on crime; people still serve their sentences. It is, rather, an approach based on brain development research that shows, in case it wasn’t clear already, that young people do not automatically become mature at 18. Brains, including impulse control and reasoning ability, are still developing into a person’s mid-20s.

Some people believe there are “naturally bad” children who were inevitably going to become lifelong criminals. Others believe children are a product of their environment. The research shows there is a small percentage of out-of-control children who become long-term frequenters of the criminal justice system. However, many juvenile offenders stop offending in adolescence and early adulthood as they mature and gain more self-control.

That means there isn’t a hard break in offending at age 18. Instead, young people who commit crimes at age 18 or 20 find themselves thrown into the adult correctional system with longer sentences, when they were likely to stop offending in a few years anyway. They are exposed to greater levels of antisocial behavior and violence in the adult system and become more likely to engage in criminal behavior.

“Research tells us that a primarily punitive approach leaves offenders worse than they were than they started. So they end up being a bigger community risk,” said Asia Serwik, deputy superintendent of programming at Mountain View. “Ultimately our goal is to keep the community safe.”

In addition to being based on research, the young adult offender program fills a practical need. Over the last decade, the number of youth in confinement in Maine decreased 35 percent, from 219 youth per 100,000 people in 1997 to 142 youth per 100,000 people in 2010, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But while the decline is good (and mirrors national trends), it doesn’t equivalently reduce costs associated with staffing and maintaining a youth detention center. Mountain View can bring in these young adult offenders — keeping them completely separate from the juvenile offenders, per federal rules — and need no additional staff, space or funding.

Meanwhile, it can, we hope, translate the success it’s seen among its juvenile offender population to its young adults.

The program required a level of understanding from not just Mountain View and the Department of Corrections but also the Legislature, which approved a bill last year to make the program possible. Gov. Paul LePage let it become law without his signature. May that broad base of support for pursuit of research-based corrections models continue. Most offenders will return to the community. When they do, they should be as prepared as possible to contribute. Shut the revolving door that too often leads them straight back behind bars.


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