Close it or not. This is the conversation that has emerged in the wake of legitimate challenges at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, but it does not reflect the larger conversation we need to be having.

As a policy associate at the University of Southern Maine and national consultant, I have been invited into a number of conversations about the recent controversy regarding Long Creek, yet there is one person with whom I wish I could discuss youth justice — my father, Eric Hansen. He was the founding superintendent of Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston, a sister facility to Long Creek.

While we butted heads on a number of things over the years, we found common ground in our approach to justice. But we can’t have those conversations anymore because he passed away at the young age of 63 after going on disability.

While his health issues weren’t solely the result of a career working in a corrections environment, I am certain they were exacerbated by it. Taxpayers, young people and communities aren’t the only ones paying the short- and long-term costs of incarceration. The corrections workforce pays a high price in terms of their own health outcomes, according to research.

[Opinion: Long Creek is failing to keep Maine kids safe. It’s time for its doors to close.]

Maine Department of Corrections has been the one public agency to take the heat for what should be a shared accountability, by systems, communities, families and all of us. The calls for Long Creek’s closure challenge the morale of its workforce. Yes, some correctional staff actively perpetuate harm, misusing their power, and for that they should be held accountable. But many of the staff I have had the privilege of working with are the epitome of dedicated public servants.

Community corrections staff work hard within a fragmented service delivery system to balance the goals of rehabilitation and public safety. Long Creek staff are behaving within boundaries of prison model they have inherited, not created. The model of large youth prisons is creating more harm than good for young people and victims, despite how committed and competent staff are. Across the nation, large youth prisons are being replaced by fiscally responsible investments in a continuum of care and smaller, secure facilities for the shrinking number of youth who need it.

I bet if I could talk to my father he would not pull any punches about saying that the issues we face today are not new. The complex needs of youth who live in the margins of an inefficient, fragmented system are unlikely to be addressed by oversimplified, technical responses.

A 2009 BDN article about Mountain View’s population reported that “youths require a variety of services. About 80 percent have at least one mental health diagnosis; 60 percent meet special education requirements; 80 percent come with significant substance abuse problems; 25 percent have significant learning disabilities; about 25 percent of the boys and about 90 percent of the girls have been sexually, mentally or physically abused.” What is new is that today there are dramatically fewer young people in justice system.

[Report urges state to overhaul Maine’s entire juvenile justice system]

As one of the oldest, poorest, whitest states, Maine has fewer youth in overall population to contribute to needed economic development. Crime is at an all-time low. We have fewer than 53 kids in a facility designed for almost triple that. We need to be honest about how few of the remaining youth are deep threats to public safety and how complex and intersectional their needs are, compared to the capacity we have built for them.

We need to ask what the opportunities are to help them rebuild their lives after they have been isolated from the community. We have better information than we have ever had about the unintended impact of our good intentions, as well as what contributes to positive youth outcomes. What do we want as a system of care for Maine’s children?

Close Long Creek or not is missing the larger point. The conversation we need to have is about creating the best system to ensure all youth are thriving, safe and accountable in their communities. We can and must do better. We need all systems and agencies to work together to respond to the needs of our youth.

I can’t have this conversation with my father, but we can have it together and it is time that we do.

Erica King is a policy associate at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

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