Long Creek Youth Development Center on Westbrook Street in South Portland is seen in this November 2016 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine lawmakers, youth advocates and the Department of Corrections are grappling with how best to reform the state’s juvenile justice system.

Last year, a state task force recommended moving young offenders into community-based treatment and programming. It’s now been developed into proposed legislation.

But critics said there can be no real reform unless the state’s only youth prison is closed and kids are kept out of the state correctional system.

Democratic Rep. Mike Brennan of Portland co-chaired the state task force that spent a year meeting with juvenile justice system stakeholders and members of the public to come up with suggested improvements. He’s also the sponsor of a bill, backed by the Department of Corrections, to implement the task force recommendations and to establish benchmarks for reducing the number of kids at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

At an online public hearing on the bill Friday, Brennan said there are currently 28 kids at the facility in South Portland, down from 136 a decade ago.

“I do believe that if this committee adopts this bill that within the next 18 to 20 months, the number of youth at Long Creek should be significantly less, if not at zero,” he said.

Speaking to members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Brennan said it’s clear even now that there are still too many youth at Long Creek simply because there is not a robust array of community alternatives.

Many of them have experienced trauma and deal with mental health and other issues. According to a report last year from the Center on Children’s Law and Policy, more than 40 percent are being held because they engaged in property, criminal mischief or drug and alcohol offenses, not crimes against people.

And most are considered at low or moderate risk to public safety.

Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said his department is undertaking many of the goals outlined by the task force that he co-chaired with Brennan.

“We will be collaborating with Health and Human Services, the Department of Education and sort of normalizing the life of these youth that have been traumatized and come to us with mental health, substance use disorder, many different challenges,” Liberty said.

For example, the Department of Corrections is in the process of creating several small, secure, therapeutic community residences for youth that would be staffed by correctional workers.

But critics said that is the wrong approach.

“Under no circumstances should there be movement on developing or building new secure facilities for young people,” said Al Cleveland, the campaign manager for Maine Youth Justice, a campaign to end youth incarceration in Maine.

The youth-led group is calling for the closure of Long Creek, the decriminalization of young people and the community reinvestment of money spent on locking up kids each year: approximately $18.6 million.

“And what that community reinvestment looks like is taking away funds from the Department of Corrections’ for juvenile services and investing it in the community organizations that have the expertise, skills and relationships to care for young people,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland pointed out that last year’s report from the Children’s Center on Law and Policy recommended that the state take steps to remove all young people from Long Creek and assign the responsibility of youth to a new agency.

Skye Gosselin, a community organizer with Maine Youth Justice, said any efforts to end youth incarceration and build an effective continuum of care needs to include the participation of formerly incarcerated young people. Gosselin said she was 14 years old when she was arrested at school and sent to Long Creek for the first time.

“Seven years later, I am healing my relationship with education but not because of Long Creek supporting my growth but because of my commitment to make sure that no young people have to go through the experiences that I did,” Gosselin said.

Gosselin said being locked up at such a young age has left her feeling like an outcast destined for a life of trouble making.

Maine Youth Justice, the ACLU of Maine and the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers are among the groups that oppose the bill.

They said it doesn’t go far enough to move kids away from the prison model.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.