Maine unnecessarily imprisons nonviolent youth because it lacks treatment options, according to a new analysis of the state’s juvenile justice system released Tuesday.
The report does not go so far as to suggest the state eliminate youth detention entirely, as some advocates have called for, but says Maine only needs “a limited secure detention and corrections capacity to protect the public from youth who pose a significant danger to others.”
Right now, most youth imprisoned at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland pose “low or moderate” risk to the public, according to the report.
Officials should fund and develop a broader spectrum of alternatives to incarceration, including smaller secure facilities, according to the report, which was prepared for a legislative task force. Doing so would help Maine achieve the “removal of all youth from Long Creek” within the next 18 to 36 months — a move that wouldn’t spell the end for youth detention in Maine but raises questions about the future of the building itself.
The report, commissioned by the Maine Juvenile System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force last year, does not address what the state would do with the 165-bed facility if it emptied, though Maine Department of Corrections officials have said it would like to use it to house Maine’s growing population of incarcerated women.
The findings and recommendations in this latest study come as lawmakers and officials are considering changes to how the state handles juvenile criminal cases.
Not for the first time, but in perhaps the greatest detail, the report portrays Maine in desperate need of improving its handling of juvenile cases.
Nearly half the people brought to Long Creek are released after only three days, suggesting their detention was never necessary, the report found in a review of state data from June 2018 to June 2019.
In 45 percent of detention cases, the most serious charges pending against youth were for crimes involving property, drugs or alcohol, not for crimes against people.
In addition, 53 percent of young people are booked to Long Creek “to provide care” for their well-being, rather than out of concern for public safety.
“These youth were not detained because they posed a threat to the community. They were detained because, when they were arrested, the authorities determined that they could not go home,” according to the report.
Maybe they had absent parents, inadequate parental supervision, mental health needs or substance use disorders.
“They needed someplace to go other than home, and there were no existing program slots available, or available program slots were considered inappropriate or ineffective, so the authorities sent them to Long Creek,” the report continued.
At the same time, young people who are sentenced to serve prison time in Maine rarely get there without prior interactions with state services that signal their distress.
Nearly 70 percent of prisoners sentenced to serve time at Long Creek received behavioral health care services beforehand, and 65 percent had lived with families who were under investigation by child welfare caseworkers for allegations of abuse or neglect, the report found.
That information shows the failures of other state agencies and the need for a variety of entities to work more collaboratively.
“Many youth are in detention due to lack of community-based alternatives, waitlists for existing programs and technical violations of release/probation,” the report states. “This should be addressed to ensure youth are detained consistent with the purposes of secure detention: to protect public safety and guard against failing to appear in court.”
The 161-page document includes recommendations that will inform the task force’s ongoing discussion of whether Maine should continue the practice of imprisoning juveniles at all, as well as how the state would plan for and fund an array of alternatives — such as prevention initiatives, mental health services and court supervision programs — that experts say are more effective and humane.
The report includes examples of how other states have reduced their rates of youth incarceration since Maine last took a serious look at the issue more than a decade ago.
“We have more, strong information to act on than we did 12 years ago — which means the pressure’s on to do something,” said Jill Ward of the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law who is the co-chair of the task force.
After the 2016 suicide of an imprisoned transgender teen drew increased scrutiny to a pattern of unaddressed mental health crises and abuses behind the youth prison’s walls, waves of public outcry pressured state officials to address the situation.
Titled “Maine Juvenile Justice System Assessment,” the report was prepared by The Center for Children’s Law and Policy and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, both in Washington D.C., and the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
It is based on a review of data, policies and procedures from the Maine Department of Corrections and Department of Health and Human Services, conducted interviews, and public input in a series of town halls.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.