We, along with youth advocates and a state task force, have long pushed for the closure of the Long Creek Youth Development Center. The detention facility in South Portland has, thankfully, shrunk to house just a couple dozen juveniles. But it has been plagued by problems and staff shortages, and it is extremely expensive.
There have been many calls for its closure. Last week, the Maine House of Representatives voted, largely along party lines, in favor of legislation to shutter the center. The Senate followed suit on Monday, although the vote was closer in that chamber. The bill faces further votes and opposition from the Mills administration.
The commissioner of the Department of Corrections, which oversees Long Creek, reminded lawmakers last month that the state has a plan to lessen its reliance on confinement for youth and that many efforts are underway to expand residential treatment and housing for the youth at Long Creek. Passing the closure bill, Commissioner Randall Liberty said, could slow this work.
The bill calls for the Department of Corrections to develop a plan to close Long Creek by June 2023. The report would be due at the end of this year.
If the state’s work to continue to expand alternatives to detention continues, Long Creek should soon be obsolete. In other words, we see this legislation and the state’s work as complementary, not in opposition to one another.
“We have the opportunity before us with this bill to do something monumental and change the way we support youth that fall through the cracks and end up in the juvenile justice system,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, said last week.
The state is making progress in its work to incarcerate fewer juveniles and to develop community-based alternatives. The number of children committed to Long Creek has dropped significantly in the last decade with the vast majority of youth diverted away from the juvenile justice system.
However, like the state’s adult correctional facilities, Long Creek has too often become a perfunctory solution for children with behavioral and emotional problems that would be better addressed in treatment facilities than a correctional center. Building up this treatment capacity, for both Maine children and adults, has been too slow.
There 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.
Scrutiny of the center has been building after a transgender boy died by suicide under the center’s care in 2016. A study released last year found that more than half of the children at Long Creek were there because no community placements were available and they could not go home. Most of these juveniles posed low or moderate risk to the public. Staffing shortages exacerbated those problems as the state struggled to hire people who were trained to work with the children.
While we believe lawmakers, the Mills administration, advocates and others have the best interests of the kids in Maine’s juvenile justice system at heart, change has been slow and, at times, inconsistent. That’s why this legislation, which Gov. Janet Mills should sign if it reaches her desk, is important. It adds another layer of urgency to the work of fully developing alternatives to youth incarceration, which is too often harmful, counterproductive and expensive.