Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland is pictured on Nov. 17, 2016. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

While Gov. Janet Mills vetoed a bill that would have emptied Maine’s only youth prison over the next two years, her administration is taking steps that make it look like the closure of Long Creek Youth Development Center is inevitable.

The governor has endorsed plans to shrink the current juvenile prison population and approved a plan that could result in smaller secure facilities for remaining youth who pose the greatest risk to public safety, leading to the South Portland prison’s obsolescence. But the fact that the governor will not commit to closure frustrates advocates who have called for it.

“It seems like there’s a clear road ahead and we should just start walking it,” said Atlee Reilly, a lawyer with Disability Rights Maine who served on a legislative task force last year that studied the state of Maine’s juvenile justice system, referring to the closure of Long Creek.

A measure adopted in a new state budget hints at what the path toward closing Long Creek may look like, after the Democratic governor vetoed a bill last week from Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, that would have forced the state to remove all youth from the detention center by mid-2023.

Advocates have long argued that imprisoning youth causes trauma that increases their likelihood of ending up back in the criminal justice system, and that doing so at Long Creek is fiscally irresponsible. The 164-bed facility costs $18 million to run and only houses around 30 people.

A report last year agreed that prison should close and identified other troubling patterns behind its walls, including that Maine unnecessarily locks up nonviolent youth for lack of more appropriate placements in the community, and disproportionately imprisons children with disabilities and of color. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy prepared the report for a legislative task force to reform Maine’s juvenile justice system.

When she vetoed Lookner’s bill last week, Mills wrote that she preferred another bill that took a steadier approach to reducing the number of youth at Long Creek. She also indicated that she wanted to keep secure detention settings as an option for youth as the state invested in alternatives to prison.

“If Long Creek did not exist for those who failed to take the conditions of their release seriously, there would be little incentive to do so,” she wrote.

The newly signed $8.5 billion, two-year budget passes most of an amended bill from Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, into law, including a directive that the Department of Corrections must submit a report by February of next year to identify smaller sites for secure residential facilities for juveniles who have committed serious crimes, Brennan said.

Brennan’s bill also notably strikes a provision in the juvenile code that allows the state to incarcerate children at Long Creek because they had nowhere else to go, shrinking the detained population further and addressing one of the more alarming findings from the task force report.

In addition, the bill revives an iteration of that task force that will keep discussing how to implement recommendations from the report. The report mainly urged the state to invest in a wider array of therapeutic alternatives for youth currently detained at the prison, which would align the state with research-based best practices for rehabilitating kids.

“The Governor is committed to using taxpayer dollars responsibly and wisely, and as these reforms occur, she, along with members of the Legislature, will evaluate future funding for Long Creek,” said Lindsay Crete, the governor’s spokesperson.

Advocates for closing Long Creek, however, have been wary of an approach that doesn’t commit the state to closing the prison and instead allows the Department of Corrections to oversee the path to how Maine gets there — especially if that involves building new facilities.

“If Long Creek will be empty within a few years per [the Department of Corrections] current plan, why not create a plan now to close it for good?” Lookner said.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.