The closing of the Mountain View Youth Development Center marks an important turning point in how Maine treats its youngest offenders. Instead of sending children to a detention center, Maine has aggressively pursued alternatives, which is better for the kids and for taxpayers.
When it opened in 2001, the facility in Charleston was meant to accommodate 140 youths. In recent years, it housed between 55 and 80. When the shutdown was announced this week, there were nine juvenile inmates at Mountain View. The Department of Corrections has transferred them to the Long Creek Development Center in South Portland. The Mountain View facility likely will be used to house adult prisoners.
Two major factors are at play in the decline, according to Jody Breton, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections. One is the steep drop in youth arrest rates. The other is the success of alternatives to incarceration. A third but small contributing factor is Maine’s declining youth population.
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 University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. The number of juveniles who had to appear before a judge in court also dropped, by about 24 percent between 2008 and 2011, and the number of youths committed to a correctional facility dropped 35 percent. This follows national trends.
A 2011 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation reiterated that juvenile correctional facilities are ineffective, often unsafe and costly. For example, recidivism rates for those detained at youth facilities are as high as 70 to 80 percent. A year of detention could cost nearly $90,000, according to the national report.
A primary alternative to incarceration is diversion, directing youth offenders to community-based programs that range from family therapy to substance abuse counseling to alternative education instead of a detention center. Juvenile community corrections officers assess alleged offenders to determine whether they are candidates for diversion. Most are. About 80 percent of juvenile offenders in Maine are diverted before they even appear in court, according to Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner for juvenile services. These kids have a recidivism rate of only 8 percent.
“If you can safely keep kids in the community, you should do it,” O’Neill says of the philosophy the department adopted about 10 years ago.
In an interview with the BDN, he emphasized that the reduction in youth detention would not have been possible without strong connections with the state’s courts, district attorneys and schools. It also took an investment in home- and community-based programs to make them successful alternatives.
The result is better for the kids, the community and taxpayers, O’Neill said. Although the 35 job losses expected at Mountain View are unfortunate, the Department of Corrections’ primary objective should be rehabilitation, not employment.
Ethan Strimling, CEO of LearningWorks in Portland, echoed those sentiments. He said he has never seen a kid come out of jail better off than when he went in — unless that child was escaping an abusive situation, which still could have been better handled with alternative placement.
About 40 percent of the students in LearningWorks’ alternative education program come from the Department of Corrections. In addition to academics, these students learn job skills and work on projects within the community, keeping them connected. LearningWorks also has made community service more structured to ensure youth participants actually do the work and understand how it contributes to society.
Strimling credits corrections officials for the recognition that young offenders do better outside of jail and making a commitment more than a decade ago to reducing the population at Maine’s youth detention centers.
“It’s a unique situation to put yourself out of business because you’ve cut off the pipeline coming in,” Breton said.
A unique but welcome situation.