May 20, 2019
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Maine experts lay out alternatives to locking up youth

A team of researchers published a report Wednesday that aims to serve as a blueprint for the future of Maine’s juvenile justice system.

The report, called “ Place Matters,” urges Maine to shift away from confining youth in institutional settings and, instead, invest in a range of programming that supports their ability to live at home.

The outline of alternatives starts with prevention programs to help teens build skills and good relationships with adults in their communities, such as tutoring and team sports.

When teens do get involved with the law or require deeper interventions, they should not be confined in detention centers, but offered nonpunitive, rehabilitative options at home — from mentoring, to schooling, to mental health and substance use treatments and therapies, according to the report.

That vision is in contrast with the state’s current model for addressing youth offenders, which heavily relies on the state’s only youth prison, the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

The March 6 report was written by Mara Sanchez and Erica King, both of the Justice Policy Program at the Muskie School of Public Service, and Jill Ward of the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law.

“Our biggest hope in putting this out there is that it will be a rallying document,” Sanchez said. “We want everybody to point to this and say, ‘This is what we want. This is where we’re headed.’”

It comes as Gov. Janet Mills’ administration re-evaluates how to improve the treatment of youth within the juvenile justice system. At the center of that discussion is the unsettled fate of Long Creek, where reported crises of violence, self-harm and unmet needs have sparked calls to close the South Portland facility.

The Maine Department of Corrections has agreed that a wider range of options for youth is necessary and indicated it is moving in that direction, but it has not decided on a plan.

The “Place Matters” report proposes what the researchers say is the best way forward, in seven steps:

— Encourage more collaboration and coordination among the agencies and organizations that touch the lives of youth in the justice system (from the courts, to educators, to their families) and make sure they are working toward the same goals.

— Encourage the governor to lead that collaboration, through forums such as the Children’s Cabinet, which Mills has re-established, and state task forces.

— Map the assets and unmet needs in each Maine community, an effort that is underway by Sanchez and King and will be published in future reports; push agencies that work with youth offenders to routinely evaluate the effectiveness of their policies; and take inventory of the state’s facilities, land and equipment, and evaluate whether they are put to the best and most cost-effective use, especially Long Creek.

— Include young people in the system in discussion and ask them what they need, following states such as Connecticut and Virginia.

— Build budgets that don’t focus only on minimizing negative metrics, such as recidivism rates, but also on boosting positive outcomes such as emotional skills, education and employment.

— Design a spectrum of educational, therapeutic programs that prioritize ways for youth to live at home.

Beyond its abstract framework, the report includes examples from other states that have moved toward developing community-based services and could serve as guides to Maine policy makers, such as New Jersey, Arizona, Kansas, Ohio and North Carolina.

Those conversations are in the early stages. The Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, which advises the Mills administration on policy, is now convening a task force to study the future of the juvenile justice system.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Mills administration was convening a task force. The Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, which advises the Mills administration, is convening it.


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