Long Creek Youth Development Center on Westbrook Street in South Portland.

Youth involved in Maine’s juvenile justice system have limited opportunity to receive services in their communities, a recent report commissioned by a juvenile justice task force found. As a result, many youth who would otherwise remain at home are being held behind bars, according to the report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. By taking steps to address this issue, Maine can prove itself a leader in juvenile justice reform while also promoting public safety.

Diverting youth away from juvenile facilities to community-based services is often the best way to hold youth accountable for their actions and promote rehabilitation. Indeed, a 2017 report found that youth diverted from Maine’s juvenile justice system had a recidivism rate of about 7 percent within two years of diversion, compared with 53 percent for youth committed to a facility.

Despite these findings, a shortage of community-based services in Maine is still causing an underuse of diversion and an overuse of detention. Over half of the youth detained at Maine’s Long Creek Youth Development Center between June 2018 and May 2019 were there to receive services they could have otherwise received in the community, if they were available. In fact, researchers found that roughly three-quarters of youth held in detention for more than 30 days were simply awaiting placement or community-based programming.

Analysis of the committed youth population revealed other disturbing trends. Seven out of every 10 committed youth were identified as low- or moderate-risk, making them ripe candidates for diversion to community services. Yet paradoxically, these young people often spent the longest time in correctional facilities. While the median length of stay for high-risk youth was well under a year, the median length among low-risk youth equated to roughly 17 months.

These findings demonstrate the unintended consequence of an insufficient supply of community-based services: A system in which children are being locked up and excessively punished in order to receive or await care.

This is the opposite of what should be occurring. While community-based services seek to restore and strengthen youth and families, youth incarceration separates children from their families and other supportive relationships. It can harm educational outcomes by reducing a young person’s likelihood of completing high school. It can lead to poor health outcomes and an increased probability of being incarcerated as an adult. And it can worsen public safety.

For these reasons, Maine should work to immediately rectify these problems by increasing its investments in community-based care and limiting the use of detention. Among other things, the report recommends increasing the use of restorative justice programs — which bring together trained facilitators, victims, those who have committed harm, and other affected parties to decide how the harm can be repaired — and expanding mental health and substance abuse programming for youth.

These are hardly untested solutions. Restorative justice programs are found all over the country and are generally associated with better public safety outcomes and higher rates of satisfaction among victims when compared with traditional court processing. And Maine already uses family-focused, community-based programming like Multisystemic Therapy, or MST, which is associated with reductions in violent crime.

However, better implementing these solutions will require real investment and strategic planning. Mental-health workers who provide MST and other evidence-informed services have been leaving the space due to Maine’s low Medicaid reimbursement rates, and a comprehensive network of community services will require confronting the challenge of serving youth in more rural areas.

Luckily, legislators have already filed a bill, LR 3255, which would start to address this issue by increasing funding for community services. And the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee recently voted out a measure which would set parameters around the use of detention.

Considering the annual costs of incarcerating a youth can run upward of $250,000, expanding community services is clearly a worthwhile investment. But for policymakers who care about preserving public safety, promoting healthy families and helping youth, it’s absolutely imperative. With the problems facing youth now clearly identified, it’s time to take steps to fix them and make Maine a leader in juvenile justice once again.

Emily Mooney is a resident criminal justice and civil liberties fellow at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization that seeks to promote free markets and limited, effective government. The R Street Institute and the Center for Children’s Law and Policy have previously worked together in a national coalition to promote juvenile justice reform.