AUGUSTA, Maine — Monday’s news that the Mountain View Youth Development Center, a state-run juvenile detention facility, would stop housing the state’s youngest inmates surely came as a surprise to many people.
But not to Stan Gerzofsky.
The longtime Democratic lawmaker from Brunswick and former chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee said he’s had the same conversation about the state’s two juvenile detention facilities — Mountain View in Charleston and Long Creek in South Portland.
“There was a time a few years ago when the numbers got very low, and [former Gov. John Baldacci] asked why we were keeping both places open when they were only half full,” Gerzofsky recalled Tuesday. “I remember pleading, saying there would come a time when there were so few numbers that we would have to do that, but that we weren’t there yet.”
Gerzofsky said he’d had a similar conversation with Republican Gov. Paul LePage, but with the number of residents at Mountain View down to nine before they were all relocated to South Portland, the time has finally come.
There just aren’t enough juvenile inmates to justify two facilities.
“Those numbers now are unsustainable. We can’t keep the facility open just for those nine children,” he said.
Gerzofsky and other officials interviewed Tuesday said the successful model of juvenile rehabilitation at Mountain View and Long Creek, the drop in juvenile arrests and efforts to divert offenders into community services and other alternatives to incarceration had all caused the steep decline in inmate population that sealed Mountain View’s fate.
Juvenile arrests in Maine decreased 41 percent in the 10-year period from 2003 to 2012, according to the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at the USM Muskie School of Public Service in Portland. The number of juveniles adjudicated — that is, those who ended up appearing before a judge in court — also dropped, about 36 percent between 2006 and 2011, the center reported last year.
While the total number of young people in Maine was also down in that time frame, the center found that “only a portion of this decrease [in adjudication] can be explained by the decrease in Maine’s youth population — there was a 10 percent decrease in the number of youth between the ages of 10 and 17 between 2006 and 2011.”
Jody Breton, deputy commissioner at the Department of Corrections, said efforts to find alternatives to incarceration likely account for the rest of the decrease. It’s a strategy called “diversion” — getting young offenders into community service or other programs instead of a detention facility.
Sometimes diversion takes place before the minor is even formally charged, Breton said.
Juvenile community corrections officers, or JCCOs, step in for assessment before a young person even sees a judge, she said. They assess the alleged offender to see whether he or she may be a candidate for diversion.
“If you threw a brick through a window, rather than incarcerating you at 16 years old, we may recommend you be put through an anger management program and make you pay back the victim, to make them whole,” Breton said. “A lot of individuals learn then and there. They don’t need to be incarcerated.”
When Mountain View opened in 2001, it was described as much as a school as a prison.
The facility was hailed for its focus on education, skill building and treatment. For the first time, substance abuse and mental health counseling were wrapped into individual rehabilitation plans. The state began tracking young offenders even after they left prison, in an effort to ensure reintegration into society.
But the state’s focus was still on commitment to a secure, residential facility. That has changed in the past decade and a half.
Breton said there are far more community providers and other organizations — such as LearningWorks in Portland and New Beginnings in Lewiston — today than there were around the turn of the century. The Department of Corrections has partnered with those organizations, into which young offenders are diverted.
Breton said Mountain View would continue a program that started last year, in which some young adults, age 18-25, receive the same educational, therapeutic and substance-abuse services the facility had provided to juveniles for years, as well as the skills training offered at the facility in culinary arts, carpentry and small-engine work.
But from here on out, offenders under 18 are headed to South Portland. The remaining juveniles in Charleston were moved there this week.
“It’s a unique situation to put yourself out of business because you’ve cut off the pipeline coming in,” Breton said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.