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

Maine’s juvenile justice system is failing our state’s children. Like their adult counterparts who are incarcerated, the vast majority of children held at the Long Creek Youth Development Center have behavioral and mental health issues. In most cases, these issues could be better treated in settings that are far less restrictive — and less costly — than a jail.

The Legislature is currently considering a bill that aims to reduce the number of children in the state’s juvenile justice system, as well as the number being held at Long Creek.

“The overarching goal of this bill is to ensure that fewer children are in the juvenile justice system and that, if and when they do become involved in the system, there is a presumption against incarceration and a requirement for the regular review of any commitment imposed, in order to minimize the harm that incarceration can cause children,” the text of LD 1684 reads.

Specifically, it would set a minimum age of 12 for criminal prosecution of Maine kids and 14 as the minimum age for incarceration. There are no minimum ages currently in state law. The bill would also require judicial review, at least every three months, of the incarceration of any child.

We have long supported alternatives to a system of escalating criminal penalties and incarceration for troubled Maine youth. The biggest hurdle is a lack of treatment options for these young people, a problem that is not resolved by LD 1684.

However, this lack of alternatives does not negate the need to improve Maine’s system, with less reliance on incarceration. In fact, it adds urgency to the need to reimagine treatment and care for children who break the law.

We appreciate calls for lawmakers to reject LD 1684 to allow a new task force on juvenile justice to complete its work. But, children who are in Maine’s criminal justice system, or soon may be, don’t have time to wait.

“It is universally accepted in Maine that prison is incredibly harmful for our youngest most vulnerable children, the longer we wait, the more children we’re putting at risk,” the bill’s sponsor Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News. “This urgency requires us to make bold policy changes now.”

“Every dollar we spend locking our kids up would be better spent immediately keeping youth out of the system, out of prison and in their communities,” she added. “The time is now for us to say ‘no more.’”

Maine is one of only nine states that include juvenile justice under the jurisdiction of the adult corrections system. Most states have separate juvenile justice agency or human services departments overseeing juvenile corrections. California is the most recent state to move in this direction.

There are have been numerous reports in recent years that chronicle the problems with Maine’s juvenile justice system, and Long Creek in particular, and suggest alternatives. In an audit in 2017, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy found that, “Long Creek houses many youth with profound and complex mental health problems, youth whom the facility is neither designed for nor staffed to manage.” And the auditors highlighted a devastating number of children harming themselves and acting out due to mental illness and traumatic experiences in their past.

A 16-year-old transgender boy took his own life at the youth prison in 2016. On Wednesday, the Portland Press Herald reported that a 13-year-old boy is being held at Long Creek despite being found incompetent to stand trial, according to his lawyer, who has filed a petition with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The boy has been in and out of the detention center since he was 11, the lawyer said.

While we believe lawmakers, the new administration, advocates and others have the best interests of the kids in Maine’s juvenile justice system at heart, change has been slow and inconsistent.

LD 1684 — and the work of the task force — can be part of the solution to move Maine to a more humane and effective juvenile justice system.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...