November 19, 2018
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Report: Maine’s youth prison problems reflect national issue

Jake Bleiberg | BDN
Jake Bleiberg | BDN
The Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland has struggled to handle its large population of young inmates with serious mental illness.

PORTLAND, Maine — Researchers at the University of Southern Maine and University of Maine School of Law have joined the chorus calling for an overhaul of the state’s youth criminal justice system.

A new report from the law school and USM’s Muskie School of Public Service contends that the problems that have plagued the state’s youth prison in recent years are not unique to Maine, but rather the failings of a national approach to juvenile justice that too closely models the adult criminal justice system.

Rather than large corrections facilities like the Long Creek Youth Development Center, Maine should prioritize providing support and services to troubled young people in their communities, the white paper states.

[Staff shortages plague ‘dumping ground’ for youth with mental illness]

“Long Creek has become the response to many of the problems that affect youth in Maine,” said USM research associate Mara Sanchez, ticking off mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and parental incarceration. “There are other services and programs that could serve those youth better at lower cost to the taxpayer … and that has been proven nationally.”

In the wake of an influx of youth with severe mental illness and a rash of self-inflicted violence at Long Creek, groups including the ACLU of Maine, GLAAD, a Boston-based LGBTQ advocacy orgnization, Disability Rights Maine and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy have urged the state to make dramatic changes to the prison and youth mental health system.

[Mental health centers are calling the cops on their own juvenile patients]

Maine corrections officials have repeatedly acknowledged that Long Creek is the wrong place for many of the young people who have end up there, but the state has so far failed to create new alternatives.

Last month, Commissioner of Corrections Joseph Fitzpatrick said that the state is working on major changes to its youth mental health services. But the plan remains vague and the Department of Health and Human services has not responded to repeated questions about the regional, youth mental health centers Fitzpatrick said are in the works.

The ACLU of Maine has called for the closure of Long Creek, and idea Fitzpatrick has rejected. The Commissioner has said that many of the teens now at Long Creek would be better served in psychiatric facilities or in the community, but that he believes there will be a long-term need for a place to hold young people who are a threat to others.

[State plans new psychiatric facilities to take pressure off youth prison, official says]

The 26-page report suggests the the state conduct a system-wide review of its youth services and establish a taskforce to implement changes to them.

It was written and researched by Sanchez, Muskie policy associate Erica King and Jill Ward, project manager at the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law, and draws on conversations among more than 100 people who are involved in the youth justice system during a November summit put on by the two schools.

“I won’t say there’s consensus on how we get there,” said King. “But there’s broad consensus that we need a new approach to youth justice.”

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg.

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