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

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Carroll Conley is the executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

The Legislature and Mills administration have been grappling in recent years with the best way to reform Maine’s juvenile corrections system. While the discussions and planning regarding what type of secure confinement is needed for Maine youth, everyone involved seems to agree on one point — most kids do not need incarceration; they need access to services in their community to help them find the right path forward.

According to the 2020 Maine Juvenile Justice Systems Assessment commissioned by the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, 53 percent of youth detained at the Long Creek Youth Development Center were detained in order to “provide care,” rather than because they posed a risk to themselves or to public safety. In 70 percent of cases where youth were held for more than 30 days, they were held because they were awaiting a placement or community-based programming.

Those statistics are our kids, and they are heartbreaking.  

What that says plainly is that some of the kids in Long Creek are there because we don’t have a better place to serve them. Can you imagine your niece, your neighbor, locked in a juvenile prison because there was not adequate housing for kids in crisis  in the community? What would the impact of those locked prison doors be on their psyche, their soul? What message does this send them about who they are and whether they matter to our community?

Our understanding is that an overwhelming majority of incarcerated kids are survivors of trauma and many are victims of sexual and physical abuse. In one recent assessment, as many as 48 percent of the girls at Long Creek had documented concern or confirmation that they are  victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

None of those kids need prone restraints and most of them don’t need prison cells. They need behavioral therapy and a safe place to sleep. They need three square meals, school, and vocational training. If they have harmed someone, they need to come to terms with this and engage in restorative justice, making their past wrongs as right as they can.

LD 756 is a starting place to shift the discussion from just closing facilities to creating much needed services. It starts with a requirement of assessing how to meet the needs of each child safely and effectively. It provides modest funding for programs and services needed in the community to meet those needs.

For example, it provides funding for Department of Education school-based restorative justice programs, mentoring services, workforce development, and educational and vocational programs. If we can find a way to keep these kids safe and successful at school, that would be a huge start.

It also proposes funding for the Department of Health and Human Services and MaineHousing for transitional housing services, emergency or crisis housing services, and other supportive housing-related services for juveniles. It’s hard to be successful in therapy or school if you don’t have a safe place to sleep and live. It also provides funding to the Office of Children and Families Services to keep young people experiencing commercial exploitation safe in the community, rather than resorting to locking them up to shelter them from harm.

The Bible teaches us that children are a heritage from the Lord; therefore, we have a moral obligation, as a society, to meet the needs of our children in the best way possible so they can grow and prosper. Incarcerating a young person simply because they need behavioral health treatment or are at risk of being a victim of trafficking is unacceptable. If the appropriate services to meet the needs of these at-risk youth are not available currently, we must do everything in our power to make them available. We can and we must do better.