A second report has called for the closure of Maine’s youth detention facility. State policymakers should follow these recommendations.
The report, from the Maine School of Law and the Muskie Center for School for Public Service, says that smaller, community facilities are more appropriate for young people than large correctional facilities like the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.
“Nationally, more states are working to implement a community-based, ‘closer to home’ system,” the report said. “These states are rejecting investment in large prison-like facilities that reflect widening margins of racial disparity and increased recidivism. Large facilities also embody some of the most harmful elements of adult incarceration such as solitary confinement, physical and sexual abuse, and physical restraints.”
Last fall, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which reviewed operations and conditions at Long Creek at the behest of the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, found that the facility’s low staffing and high population of teens with mental illness have created “ dangerous and harmful conditions.”
Because the facility is understaffed, employees there worked more than 5,400 hours of overtime during the first nine months of the year. This led to burnout, turnover and lack of coordination and consistency in how the children held there were treated. As a result, both staff and detainees are put at risk of violence and injury.
In October 2016, a mentally ill transgender boy hanged himself while on suicide watch at Long Creek. Not long after that, corrections officials began to publicly acknowledge that the center cannot handle its large population of mentally ill inmates, which includes other young people who have tried to kill or hurt themselves. About a third of detainees at Long Creek are sent there by mental health facilities, a breakdown of that system as well.
Maine corrections officials have repeatedly acknowledged that Long Creek is the wrong place for many of these young people, 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, including setting up regional secure psychiatric facilities. But the plan remains vague and the Maine Department of Health and Human services has not responded to repeated questions about the youth mental health centers Fitzpatrick said are in the works.
The report from the Muskie and law schools offer four straightforward next steps that would provide a good road map for the state.
Conduct a systems assessment: To determine what services Maine has and to identify gaps, the state should review the policies, practices and facilities of all state agencies that serve at-risk youth. It should also work with parents, providers, law enforcement, judges and other stakeholders to identify the breadth of needs of these youth. The report suggests this work focus on models of care that center on small, regional facilities.
Develop a plan for a continuum of care: This starts with mapping existing community-based facilities to identify where resources are lacking. These gaps should be filled with in-home and community-based facilities that use evidence-based treatment.
Integrate public and private funds: Many at-risk youth are served by a variety of state agencies and private services. Funding often creates barriers for a smooth transition between these entities.
Create and fund a group to oversee these changes: Someone must be charged with seeing that talk about changes turns into action.
These recommendations should help guide the state’s work as it develops alternatives to Long Creek that better serve the needs of the juveniles who end up in its care.
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