Long Creek Youth Development Center on Westbrook Street in South Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Senate voted narrowly to support the closure of Maine’s last youth prison Monday, setting up a bigger fight for criminal justice reform advocates down the road.

The proposal to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center is one of criminal justice reform advocates’ top priorities. It comes as the population of the youth prison has slid in recent years, with fewer than 30 children currently incarcerated. Supporters of the closing have argued it is too expensive and that children would be better served in community settings. If passed, the funding for the center would be diverted to reintegration services and the state would need to come up with a plan by the end of this year to close the center by 2023.

The tight vote margin presents a challenge for supporters, as the bill will likely need a two-thirds vote to overcome a veto from Gov. Janet Mills, who opposes closing the center. The bill passed on a 19-15 vote, with three of the Senate’s 22 Democrats joining all present Republicans to oppose closing the South Portland facility.

The Senate vote came days after the House approved the measure in a 81-57 vote.

It will need further votes in both chambers before it goes to Mills.

Pushes for reform have been building after a transgender boy died by suicide at the center in 2016. A study last year found more than half of the children held at the center were there because they are unable to go home or do not have a more appropriate place to go.

Those issues were top of mind for Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who argued the state needs to work more proactively toward a solution that will repurpose the center and serve children better.

“We know youth prisons don’t work because the young people who have experienced Long Creek are telling us so, over and over again,” he said.

The proposal has received nearly unanimous opposition from Republicans and divided Democrats, with House leaders voting against it last week.

Sen. Susan Deschambault, D-York, moved to kill the bill, saying in a floor speech that lawmakers should support the Maine Department of Corrections’ plan to move toward reducing the population at the prison further and creating more community-based programs, but does not include closing Youth Creek itself.

She also argued the department has made strides in reducing the population through criminal code reforms and that there is a defined need for a secure confinement option for youth.

“To be at Long Creek, someone has to send you there, and it’s a judge,” she said. “Long Creek doesn’t just open their doors and they come in. They’re not really kids that don’t have a place to go.”